Although I read voraciously, books seldom make me cry. I cry easily over movies, but somehow text does not elicit the rush of emotion I require for tears.
So when a book does make me cry, I remember it. I don’t have the arrogance to claim that a book that makes me cry must be a great book; obviously, it could simply be triggering something emotional inside me.
However, this week’s frontlist title truly is a great book, and I can tell you so because it recently won the 2014 PEN/Ackerley Prize, a British award for memoir and autobiography.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala is the kind of searing story that breaks through all previous notions of what a memoir of grief should be. Deraniyagala, an Oxbridge-educated economist, lost her family — husband, two sons, and parents — in the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami. She is honest from the get-go, detailing the sheer indignity of being pantless in the middle of disaster, but it was not her on-the-scene reportage that brought on my weeping. Rather, it was her absolute stark, fearless honesty in showing us how she reached rock bottom. I could have wept at the moment when she loses contact with her son’s hand, when she attempts to stab herself with a butter knife, or when she learns how to use a combination of booze and pills to bring on the release of hallucinations.
But no, I cried when she loses all her dignity and begins harassing a family to whom her parents have rented her old house, when she drives there every night, cranking up ‘80s music on the car radio, and hollering at the innocent family. Because she knows that their innocence amplifies the specter of her deep, deep loss.
When I think of Wave, I think of a book published in 2007 that takes place at the seaside and is also by an author of South Asian descent: Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us. Many of the scenes in this sad and smart novel take place at Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach, where the protagonist, housekeeper Bhima, likes to buy and eat snacks of bhel puri. The story truly concerns the space between Bhima, a lower-caste woman, and her employer, a wealthy Parsi housewife named Sera. There is much to love in the pair’s slow fumbling toward, if not a friendship, then a relationship at least — one that transcends their many barriers.
It is near the beginning of the novel, when Bhima’s daughter dies of AIDS, that my tears began. Umrigar, an American journalist who teaches writing at Case Western Reserve University, so delicately and deliberately shows the agony of loss on both sides of the sickbed, I actually had to put the book to one side while I sobbed.
What was the last book that made you cry?