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Book of the Week: Margo White reviews Decca Aitkenhead’s tragic memoir

Margo White reviews All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead.

It was a cloudless, calm Caribbean morning in Calabash Bay, Jamaica. From the porch of her holiday house, Decca Aitkenhead could see her four-year-old son, Jake, paddling in the shallow water, still in his pyjamas and at the feet of his Dad, Tony. A couple of minutes later she happens to glance toward the beach and sees a small head bobbing in the water. Realising, eventually, that it’s Jake, she hurtles down to the beach. Nothing to panic about though; Tony has already swum out to rescue their son, got hold of him and is heading back to shore. Except they get into trouble, so Aitkenhead swims out and, drawing on long-past lifesaving lessons, gets Jake safely back. She assumes Tony is right behind her, only she turns around to see he has been pulled out further out to sea by the undertow. Three fishermen swim out to Tony and get hold of him. Aitkenhead still thinks this will be recalled as an embarrassing drama, one they’ll laugh about for the rest of the day, if not the entire holiday. This is also what she thinks when Tony is pulled to shore. Only he doesn’t sit up. He doesn’t even open his eyes.

Aitkenhead’s account of a sudden and bewildering death of her partner of ten years is terribly sad, yet somehow not harrowing. This could be put down to Aitkenhead’s cerebral approach, her forensic, lucid, even ruthless self-examination of what goes on in her own head over the following weeks and months. The result is a memoir and account of grief that is idiosyncratic, compelling, insightful, beautifully written, occasionally funny and, I think, extremely useful.

The guilt sets in within days, “the insatiable, rampaging narrative of guilt”; if only she’d swum out sooner, if only she hadn’t suggested the holiday, if only she’d never met him. Whatever way she looked at it, if it wasn’t for her, Tony wouldn’t be dead. But what purpose did all that self-blame serve, she later muses. “I’m just imagining a parallel universe in which Tony does not have to die,” she concludes, “one for which taking the blame is a small price to pay”.

How is a grieving person supposed to think and behave? Aitkenhead doesn’t pretend she knows what she’s doing, or what her brain is doing. She admits to enjoying the slight celebrity of tragedy on the plane back from Jamaica, with Tony’s body on board. When she receives condolences from famous people she’d interviewed, she’s appalled at the gratification she feels.

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She wonders at her need to keep up appearances; she wants to gets her brows waxed and her nails done but, afraid that will appear unseemly, travels some distance to a beauty clinic in another town where nobody will know her. She even worries about what the postman thinks. “If I am always in tears, will my grief soon begin to look slovenly and unedifying? Perhaps I am expected to pull myself together … but then I worry that he will think me cold and indifferent.”

There is, of course, disbelief that the rest of the world carries on as normal, when hers has been turned upside down. “An urge to scream ‘Haven’t’ you heard?’ at passing strangers is also, I understand, quite normal.’”

But this is also the story of the man she loved, for her own record and, for when they’re old enough, their two sons. Theirs was an unlikely relationship. She was a Guardian journalist and conformed to stereotypes about the typical Guardian journalist; liberal, middle-class posh, well educated, well connected, academic. Tony was a mixed-raced child born to a 15-year-old mother and adopted by a working-class family. By the time Aitkenhead met him, he was a drug dealing crack addict with a criminal history and, if not a gratuitous relationship with violence, an ease and familiarity with it. She was a well-established writer, he didn’t know what a paragraph was. The short story is that they fell hopelessly in love and despite her own misgivings, and those of her friends and family, left their respective spouses and moved in together.

It almost didn’t last; she’d rise at 8am and begin writing, and he’d get up about 4pm, light a joint and start making calls, following up on drug payments. She’d go to bed around 1am, and he’d stay up watching Sky and smoking crack till dawn. Eventually she concluded that, despite Tony’s charisma, charm, beauty, his “determination to enjoy himself … [which] made me a sunnier version of myself than I would have believed possible”, love couldn’t conquer all. She left him.

Reader, he changed. He didn’t just say he’d change, he really did change; took himself off to Narcotics Anonymous, gave up the drug business, enrolled for university, got a degree in psychology and criminology and a job as counsellor at a charity for deprived inner city kids. By the time Tony died, the unlikely couple had bought and was renovating a 16th century farmhouse house in rural Kent, had two sons, and couldn’t quite believe their luck. “’Dec,’ he remarked one day, as we lay in bed,” writes Aitkenhead. “’If we had both signed up for internet dating sites, what algorithm in the world would have matched us up?’ Any website as insane as that, I agreed, would probably be sued, and both of us laughed. But against all reasonable expectations, we had made it.”

Aitkenhead had experienced the death of a loved one early on in life, having lost her mother a week before her tenth birthday. This did nothing to prepare her for the profound sadness of Tony’s death. Her mother protected her four children by acting as if she didn’t mind dying, and by providing them with lists and instructions, such as a rota of cooking duties, lengthy recipes for dishes such as mashed potatoes, lists about who to send Christmas cards to or what books they should read at what age. Death, as her nine-year old self perceived it, wasn’t a catastrophe, or even a tragedy, but an “organisational challenge; if we organised ourselves properly, the possibility of loss could be eliminated altogether”.

It didn’t work out like that, as she found out. Turning away, trying to ignore the sadness, can “cauterise the senses”, she writes. These passages, her retrospective account of grief repressed, are some of most moving and insightful in the book. “Our mother had told us everything about her mastectomy, except that it devastated her, and everything about dying except that it would break our hearts. She couldn’t tell the unbearable truth that her death was a disaster from which none of us would fully recover, no matter how many lists she wrote.”

Which is partly what informed her decision to write All at Sea, the desire to put things down as they were, its impact on her and her sons, and to make sure they all remember who Tony really was. Her mother had been posthumously deified in a way that made her unfamiliar and unreal to Aitkenhead, her own memories taped over by other people’s memories, her own memories displaced with a memorial to somebody she couldn’t remember.

“The thing to remember about this story is that every word is true,” she writes at the beginning. “If I never told it to a soul, and this book did not exist, it would not cease to be true. I don’t mind at all if you forget this. The important thing is that I don’t.”


All At Sea  (Fourth Estate, $34.99) by Decca Aitkenhead is available at Unity Books.

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