In a world where disaster seems to be a daily occurrence, where war is constant companion, the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 is a distant memory for most of us. But as the people of Mississippi and Louisiana know all too well, you don’t just recover from events like this in a few weeks or months.
Richard Lewis knows this as well because he lives in the area and volunteered in Aceh after the tsunami. Lewis was born and raised in Bali, Indonesia as the son of American missionaries. His first book, The Flame Tree, was also set in Indonesia and is “a remarkable look at religious conflict and personal relations in a post 9/11 world.”
In his latest book, The Killing Sea, Richard Lewis reminds us of the devastation that struck the region that day two years ago and the horror that transpired in its wake. But he doesn’t leave it there, he also reminds us of the courage and the generosity that flowed into the region as the water receded. Lewis manages to give us both a gut wrenching reminder of the pain and suffering as well as a poignant story of friendship and loyalty.
The Killing Sea focuses on two teenagers caught up in the tragedy: Ruslan, an Indonesian boy searching for his missing father, and Sarah, an American – at least according to the book flap – girl whose family vacation ends up being in the path of the devastation. In trying to get medical treatment for her sick brother, Sarah meets up with Ruslan and they decide to travel together. The story follows them from the day of the tsunami up to the point where rescue workers arrive and the media descends in mass on the area.
Perhaps not surprisingly given its label as a “young adult” novel, The Killing Sea is a rather simple story. The tsunami strikes sending Ruslan and Sarah on their harrowing adventure and causing their paths to cross. They travel together until events again force them to part. What makes the story a compelling one is the nature of the event and the skill with which Lewis captures those events along with the feelings and emotions of the characters.
The gut wrenching part is having to follow along with Ruslan after his miraculous survival of the initial impact. Lewis doesn’t revel in the death and destruction that followed the tsunami and his descriptions are not gore for gore’s sake, but he also doesn’t shy away from the macabre reality. We see the destruction, the dead bodies, the lost souls separated from loved ones, the inconsolable grief that settled on the island. With Ruslan we witness this horror and share his emotions ranging from shock to terrible sadness and grief to empty numbness. Lewis also skillfully weaves in the practical issues facing the region: how to dispose of the bodies to prevent further health issues; the lack of order or communication in the wake of the destruction; the lack of doctors and proper medical care and supplies. He also touches lightly on the political and military landscape in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Lewis skillfully takes a real life event that is hard to imagine or conceptualize and brings it down to a human scale. And it is on this level that he explores the lives and emotions of the people caught up in these larger than life events. Lewis does a great job of both creating believable and interesting characters and capturing their thoughts and emotions as the story unfolds. Despite the brevity of the story, less than 200 pages, Lewis adds in enough details to make the character’s internal lives interesting.
Ruslan is a poor local teenager being raised by a widowed mechanic. He has a flair for art despite the poverty that makes a practical occupation so important. There is a tension within his family because of the political rebellion within Indonesia. He will have to maneuver through these political and military fault lines if he is to find his father.
Sarah is a rather typical spoiled teenage girl at first glance. She loves her father dearly, but feels estranged from her mother after uncovering a secret in her mother’s diary. The tragic events force her to deal with the complex emotions surrounding her parents and to put aside her petulance to care for her sick brother.
The tsunami brings these two together and their adventure forges a friendship that transcends their differing backgrounds and cultures. Lewis skillfully captures the awkward and strange feelings these two young teenagers develop for each other. The tragedy forces them to grow up faster than they might have and their relationship also raises unique feelings (from the tingly beginning of attraction to the comfort of friendship to the ache of separation). In this way, The Killing Sea is both a coming of age story and one about friendship in trying circumstances. Lewis has a light touch and so avoids, in my opinion, a cloying or sappy ending. Instead, he manages a poignant and thoughtful resolution to the story.
Despite its subject, and its at times harrowing details, The Killing Sea is an understated and simple story of friendship and generosity in the face of tragedy and a subtle reflection on the importance of family in our lives. Like The Flame Tree I would recommend it to young adults and regular adults alike.