A devastating but ultimately redemptive memoir by a survivor of the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami, who must come to terms with the deaths of her husband, her young sons and her parents from the natural disaster that somehow spared her.
Deraniyagala is an economist, and her matter-of-fact account is all the more powerful for its lack of literary flourish, though the craft and control reflect an exceptional literary command. Every word in these short, declarative sentences appears to have been chosen with great care, as if to sentimentalize the experience or magnify the horror (as if that were possible) would be a betrayal of all she has lost. It’s no surprise when the first and strongest acknowledgment goes to her therapist: “This book would not exist without his guidance and persuasion. With him I was safe, to try and grasp the unfathomable, and to dare to remember.” “The water was pulling me along with a speed I did not recognize, propelling me forward with a power I could not resist,” she writes of what she later learned was “the biggest natural disaster ever,” one that would claim a quarter of a million casualties. “I had to surrender to this chaos…,” she continues. “My mind could not sort anything out.” Eventually, the numbness of her survival gives way to profound guilt (she should have done something, she should never have brought them there), rage, a refusal to sleep (lest she awake to the fantasy that her family was still alive), an attempt to avoid any experience or memories she shared with them and an obsessive pull toward suicide. And then, as miraculously as her rescue, she eventually reached the point where “I want to remember. I want to know.” The more she remembers about their life before the tsunami, and in greater depth and detail, she writes “I am stunned. I want to put a fist through these last six years and grab our life. Claim it back.”
Excellent. Reading her account proves almost as cathartic as writing it must have been.