I finished Richard Lewis’s most recent YA novel The Killing Sea in two days. Really one and a half. I purchased it for my son but couldn’t wait for him to get through a trilogy he is currently reading and so I picked up The Killing Sea and read it myself. Am I glad I did! It’s a wonderful read and a real page turner.
Two protagonists move through the story: Ruslan, a local Indonesian boy who works at a small beachside cafe in the town of Meulaboh; and Sarah, a teenager sailing with her family through the Indonesian islands over the Christmas holiday. The two meet briefly when Sarah’s family anchors their sailboat near the cafe, looking for a mechanic to fix their engine. Ruslan (whose mechanic father ultimately fixes the engine) is captivated by Sarah’s blue eyes. A budding artist, he returns home later that night and draws her in his sketchbook (against the teachings of a local cleric who deems any image-making to be a form of idolatry). Sarah barely registers Ruslan’s existence before stalking off to the sailboat when her mother insists she don a headscarf out of respect for the local culture.
Lewis sensitively and deftly explores the notion of the spoiled American as we see Sarah undergo her own sea change after the tsunami rips her world apart. Both Ruslan and Sarah are left parentless: Ruslan, motherless since birth, cannot find his father after the tsunami; Sarah’s parents both disappear beneath the rising waters as they flee their stranded sailboat. She learns the fate of one shortly after the waters recede, the other she cannot find before she must leave to search for a hospital for her younger brother who inhaled seawater and is having difficulty breathing.
Ruslan and Sarah’s paths intersect again, post-tsunami, as they struggle to survive against violent rebels, wild animals, contaminated water, blocked roads and mounting hunger. The trials they endure give the two teenagers a strong bond of survivorship that transcends gender, race, and religion. In their journey they are helped by a savvy feline named Surf Cat, a motley group of rebels who are strangely familiar, an unlikely crew of fellow survivors, and a number of cast-off items that are put to inventive good use.
The Killing Sea is a story born of the 2004 tsunami, yes (Lewis volunteered as an aid relief worker in the aftermath, and a portion of the proceeds from his book will go to support local relief organizations), but it is not only about the tragedy. It is also about an unlikely friendship that transcends ethnic and religious boundaries. The Killing Sea is an enduring, timeless story–a story of hope and survival, of human triumph against enormous odds.