Friday, February 28, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Wave

Welcome to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse review, a cozy gathering of book lovers. Each month we gather to share our reviews of the best book we read in the last month. It's also a blog-hop, so thanks for hopping by!

"I am in the unthinkable situation most
people can't bear to contemplate."
I read two really excellent books this month, so I'm sharing one here and one (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra) on my personal blog, Words Incorporated.

Wave is a grief memoir, a genre exemplified by Joan DidionIsabel Allende, and CS Lewis. I dunno—I think Sonali Deraniyagala might trump them all. Not that this is a competition anyone wants to win. She lost her entire family (two sons, a husband, and both parents) in 2004's horrific tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of people died that day, but here, we are focusing on this family, this particular loss. It is a stunning book.

The story crashes in on you immediately, locating you with the family the morning of the devastation, just as the sea was coming in but before anyone realized what was wrong. I read this first chapter in one gasping go, my heart pounding, unable to look away or think about anything else till it was done. You don't really want to diminish such an experience by calling it a "hook," but by god, I was hooked. From there, the pace slows a bit as the author walks you through the aftermath, but it never really lets up. Strangely, I didn't want to put it down for a second.

I would say "I can't imagine what it must be like to lose your entire family," but that's what this book does. Makes you imagine it. I also have a husband, two kids, and two parents, without any of whom I'd be unmoored, but ... the kids! To lose your babies in an instant like that. Grief isn't something you can recount easily, it doesn't fit in the frame. It's like those blue whales she observes from the boat ... too big to fathom. You can only get bits at a time. If ever you needed a reminder to be grateful for what you've got, for every mundane second of what you've got, Sonali will remind you.

There's a little gift buried in this memoir that doesn't get mentioned in reviews: the glimpse at a life that is both so similar to and so very different from my own. Sonali is Sri Lankan, upper middle class, and married an Englishman. She raised her family biculturally, across continents. That alone was interesting to me. The physical descriptions of Sri Lanka—the sea, the jungle, routine hoards of cranky elephants—were colorful and fascinating. I felt like I was getting a cultural education right along with the Job-like horror story. It almost seems in poor taste to mention it, like you're not supposed to notice how interesting her family is. Or was. 

Steve, Vik, and Malli
And that's part of what makes this book work: you get caught up in how interesting they are. Malli in his tutu, Vik's fascination with eagles, Steve cooking dinner. She fleshes them out slowly; you get to know them after they are firmly established as dead, and it becomes ever-more difficult to believe they could possible BE dead. How could such real people be dead? They had futures, each of them, and you find yourself rooting for them impossibly, hoping somehow it'll all turn out all right in the end.

I was struck by the "army of friends and family" who kept Sonali from killing herself that first year. In the US, our ties to our nuclear family are often strong, but our ties to our extended family and community can be remarkably weak, relative to other cultures. I don't think I have "an army" of people who could watch over me 24/7 for months on end. In my culture, if I were in that position, I'd be committed to an institution. That's what we do. In George Packer's The Unwinding, which I reviewed here last month, I noticed how alone Americans are, relatively speaking; the only person who could rely on extended family to help her out during financial crisis was an Indian immigrant.

Sonali Deraniyagala
Some reviewers have complained that the book is too sad to be borne. I didn't feel that way: I struggled much more with Leaving the Sea, a book of short stories I finished right before I started this one. I don't know how that fiction could be bleaker than this reality, but there is an intimation right from the start that Sonali is going to be OK somehow. Maybe simply because she is there, writing this memoir—she couldn't do that if she wasn't a little bit OK. Some people survive but never do come back to life after tragedies; they remain shells for the rest of their days. This writer (and how is she not a professional writer? Her writing is amazing) seems like she has a shot at being all right. That resilience is what makes the book bearable.

Note: Much of this review is shared from my review over at Goodreads. Feel free to join me there.

19 comments:

  1. OMG. I have chills reading this review, remembering that day. We had friends vacationing in Thailand at the time who were lost to communication for three weeks but survived.

    I cannot even fathom the depths of despair she, and others, have endured. Truly a powerful message of survival, and a love labor for her lost ones.

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    1. Three weeks! The sense of relief when they finally were able to make contact must have been overwhelming.

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  2. What a heartbreaking story. I'm glad that she at least found support from her extended family and friends. Like you say, it doesn't seem like everyone can count on others outside their nuclear family. Perhaps writing about it also helped. I read Isabel Allende's memoir, and for me, it's her best book.

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    1. I haven't read "Paula" yet, but I remember you highly recommending it. Definitely on my to-read list.

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  3. This sounds like a stunning book. There are some things we'd rather bury our heads in the sand and not consider... like the personal stories of tragic losses... but those stories help us better appreciate our fragility and shared humanity.

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    1. I think so too. I feel strangely buoyed by sad stories sometimes; makes me appreciate my life (and my loved ones) more.

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  4. Another great review. I've heard that this is a good book and I will read it. But beforehand I'll have to take a deep breath because it's that kind of story.

    We should make a list of fiction-bleaker-than-life. That would be an interesting list.

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    1. It would be! I bet Goodreads has something like that. Funny how what makes a book truly "bleak" or not is the last 20 pages. This one kind of ends on an up note; so does the one I interviewed on Words Inc. But some books insist on holding your head underwater the entire time.

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    2. Edit: Reviewed. Not interviewed. Derp.

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  5. You've been reading powerful books! Again, that connection to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is potent.

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    1. I certainly is. I am very glad to be an ordinary person in ordinary circumstances.

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    2. No kidding! What's that Chinese curse? "May you live in interesting times..."

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  6. Ugh. This sounds like a really heartrending read - but a worthwhile one for sure. Thanks for the great review.

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    1. You're welcome. It was a tough read, but I'm glad I went ahead with it.

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  7. Some amazing reads this month. Quite floored. But inspired too. Human spirit prevailing.

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    1. We can be remarkably resilient, indeed.

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  8. You review is wonderfully written about a harrowing subject. what a great tragedy for so many people at that time, the force of nature sometimes is very cruel. My best wishes to Sonali.

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    1. It's pretty much impossible to conceive of 200,000 people snuffed out all at once. Wrapping your mind around a family-sized tragedy is hard enough.

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  9. This would be an incredibly difficult tragedy to go through! Like you said, you know that Sonali was a little bit OK since she wrote the memoir. Knowing she has a survivor's spirit helps out when reading tragic books like this one. I'll add this one to my reading list. Thanks for sharing!

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