The Killing Sea is a novel I've wanted to read for some time now. In fact, I've taken it out of my library several times but never gotten around to actually reading it! So recently I gave it another go, and I discovered Lewis has written a surprisingly good novel about a difficult topic - the 2004 tsunami which killed an estimated 250,000 people.
The story opens on the day before the tsunami, December 25, 2004, with an American family, the Bedford's on vacation in the small harbour town of Meulaboh. They have stopped in the port to have the engine in their small chartered sailboat repaired. Ruslan who lives in Meulaboh, understands English and sends them to his father Yusuf who is a mechanic. Once their sailboat is repaired they sail out of the harbour and anchor for the night off the coast of Sumatra.
Meanwhile, Ruslan, who is a talented artist, cannot forget the deep blue eyes of Sarah Bedford. Ruslan lives with his father in the village. His father, appreciative of Ruslan's artistic gifts, plans to send him to arts college in Jakarta.
Early the next morning a magnitude 9.2 earthquake hits the area, just offshore. Sarah and her family feel the quake as a dull but deep thud. They know immediately that they are in trouble because the reef they are anchored near is drying up, the water receding quickly out to sea. Their sailboat, the Dreamcatcher is trapped, aground and as they look out to the ocean, to their horror they see a wall of water coming towards them. Sarah, her father and mother and younger brother Peter abandon the boat and try to make it to shore to the safety of the hills. It is a race against time, they have little chance of winning.
Sarah and her brother Peter survive the tsunami, but Peter has been injured by swallowing water and needs medical attention. Sarah's and Peter's journey becomes one to find help for Peter.
For Ruslan, the quake hits Meulaboh shortly after he finishes breakfast. When he runs to the waterfront to check on his father, he like others in the town gasp in wonder at the receding water. For reasons, unknown to Ruslan, he begins running away from the ocean as fast as he can. He stops at his home to grab a shirt and sandals and tries to outrun the oncoming black water. But soon he is cut off from every point of escape. His only option is to get to the top of a house and ride out the flood. Ruslan watches in horror as people he knows drown or are crushed in the black refuse-choked waters. He survives but does not know the fate of his father. Eventually Ruslan learns that he went to visit relatives that day in the Calang region. So his journey is to find his missing father.
The story is told in the alternating voices of Sarah and Ruslan as they journey first separately and then together towards safety and reuniting with their families. Chapters often end with some kind of tension that is resolved in the next chapter narrated by the character.
Lewis deftly demonstrates to his readers how the physical disaster combined with the political turmoil and Third World character in the Banda Aceh region contribute to the suffering of the people after this catastrophe. Items we take for granted in wealthy Western countries, such as antibiotics, fever medication and even doctors, simply do not exist in poor underdeveloped areas like Aceh.
Lewis incorporated much of what he learned about this tsunami from working as a volunteer in Aceh after the disaster into the novel. He spoke with survivors and refugees and this helped him in the crafting of his story.
The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis
New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2006