Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Survivor fearlessly refuses to look away during grief

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By Sonali Deraniyagala

McClelland & Stewart, 228 pages, $27

WIDESPREAD catastrophes often overwhelm terrible private tragedies.

London-based economist Sonali Deraniyagala's life changed in an instant on Dec. 26, 2004, when her family was holidaying along the southeast coast of Sri Lanka.

The massive Asian massive tsunami hit the shore of her native country and swept away her husband and two sons as they were attempting to flee the onslaught. She never saw them, or her parents, again.

This affecting memoir charts the next seven years of Deraniyagala's painful journey of coming to terms with a life without the people she loves.

Wave recalls 2005's The Year of Magical Thinking, American writer Joan Didion's memoir of her year after her husband dies.

In both cases, there's a tangible sense that if a person hopes for something enough and performs the right actions that the death of someone close to you can be reversed.

Certain questions ring over and over in Deraniyagala's head. Why didn't she stop at her parents' door to warn them? Why did she take her family back to Sri Lanka in the first place? At times, her anguish is so enormous that she can't even revisit places that she spent with her young sons.

Many of this book's details feel almost too intimate to read, such as the bittersweet moment she finds her husband's eyelash on his pillow in their London home.

"So this is my now, loitering on the outskirts of the life that we had," she writes.

When she revisits Yala, on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka, her mood starts to metamorphose. Being back in this familiar landscape reopens her wound, yet here her hope and healing truly begin. Through the painstakingly act of recreating and recalling the details of her family's life, she starts to breathe normally again.

"As I kept returning over the next few months, the jungle began to revive," she writes.

"Fresh green shoots sneaked out from under crushed brick. New vines climbed around tilting pillars, and these ruins suddenly looked ancient, like some holy site, a monastery for forest monks, perhaps. Around our rooms a scattering of young ranawara bushes dripped yellow blossom ... I resented this renewal. How dare you heal."

What saves this book from becoming too depressing to bear is Deraniyagala's unflinching honesty and her beautiful, spare writing style, which never becomes maudlin.

Her prose mirrors her physic state. She uses staccato sentences during the trauma of the opening sequence and moves to a more lyrical style by the book's conclusion.

The Indian Ocean tsunami officially killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, a staggering number from a single natural disaster. The wave, up to 30 metres high, was triggered by the third largest earthquake ever measured.

While other stories from the tsunami have been told, both in documentaries and in feature films, this is the first book told from the perspective of a native Sri Lankan.

Its circumstances seem particularly bleak next to the recent Hollywood film The Impossible, where an entire family of five improbably survives.

Deraniyagala's account of her loss is remarkable because it illustrates the power of the human spirit to survive the unimaginable. Her fearless refusal to look away, even during the darkest moments of her grief, make it impossible to have anything other than admiration for the bravery and dignity she exhibits during these, the darkest hours of her life.

Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg writer and communications specialist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J7

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