After the wave, the emotional deluge

Published in The Observer (July 31st, 2011)

Let Not the Waves of the Sea by Simon Stephenson (John Murray)

On what would have been his brother’s 28th birthday, Simon Stephenson sat in a small room in Edinburgh, his head resting on his sibling’s coffin. It was an absurdly large box, made of rich rosewood and big enough to contain the sealed steel casket containing Dominic’s remains.

Stephenson and his family had been warned not to open the casket on any account. The body was decreed too damaged, too dangerous for them to gaze upon it one last time – even for Stephenson, who is a doctor. So instead he whispered through the wood all the things he wished he had said to his brother while he was alive.

It was three months since Dominic and his girlfriend had been swept away in the Boxing Day tsunami while on holiday in Thailand. Three months of phone calls and faxes, of desperate searching and desolate waiting. “And now that I finally had to believe, the feeling was like nothing I had ever known… I was for ever consigned to wander, alone and without a heart, in a dark and freezing world.”

In this profoundly moving memoir, Stephenson gives a glimpse into the grief behind the headlines of a disaster. His beloved brother, close to him in age, was one of the 230,000 people who died in the tragedy seven years ago. Or, as he puts it so starkly at the end of this book, two people for each word over the previous 304 pages.

After a slightly contrived opening describing a walk to a viewpoint on Ko Phi Phi island – the scene of his brother’s death – he tells of the moment his world changed. The phone rang in his mother’s Edinburgh house. Instead of a jokey call from a holidaying brother it was a friend wondering if he had heard from Dominic. Stephen replied that all was fine; they’d spoken the day before. His friend hesitated, then gently asked if he had heard anything today.

He switched on the television to find wall-to-wall footage of the tsunami. There was no reply from their mobiles, so he sent a text asking his brother and girlfriend to call, then woke his mother. “Months later she would tell me that as soon as she woke she had felt an overwhelming emptiness in the world, and when she heard me say the words ‘earthquake’ and ‘Thailand’ she had understood what it meant.”

Then came the hope, the horror of the wait, the calls to the police, the phones that refused to ring, the dawning realisation that Dominic would not return alive. His uncle flew out to search in person, while Stephenson trawled gruesome internet sites filled with pictures of bloated bodies. It was a painfully slow process – we learn of the difficulties of taking prints from fingers soaked in salt water and the realities of DNA identification – far removed from television dramas.

Finally his brother was confirmed dead and Stephenson slowly attempted to pick up the threads of his life while groping his way through the netherworld of grief. He tries to return to his fledgling second career as a screenwriter, but it seems to be only in Thailand, among other people scarred by similar experiences, that recovery begins. Foremost among them is stoical Ben, a handyman who lost his home, his wife and his two young daughters, who comes to call him “nong chai“, or little brother.

This is an extraordinarily personal book – at times, as Stephenson sifts through memories in intricate detail, almost too personal. But such is his surgical skill with words, and his heartrending honesty, that it is impossible not to be touched. And as a screenwriter he knows about plotting, holding back one devastating detail until a third of the way into the drama.

There are absorbing diversions into the science of tsunamis, the nature of dengue fever, even a little Greek mythology and an unexpectedly warm portrait of Gordon Brown, who displays sympathy to Stephenson’s mother over their shared loss of a child.

By the end, after he has had his brother’s name tattooed on his left arm and started to come to terms with his unexpected loss, Stephenson comes to the grim acceptance that his martial arts-loving brother probably died in fear.

“Dominic’s body was recovered from the sand and the water, the debris and the sun. Now when people ask if I know what happened to him, I tell them no, not really.” All that matters is that a life was suddenly stolen. And in that moment of loss, we have been given a powerful study of tortured bereavement.

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