Decca Aitkenhead’s second book is the account of her partner Tony Wilkinson’s death, and its illuminating aftermath. While the impetus for All At Sea was his death (and her loss), Aitkenhead delves into every aspect of her life that was affected by her tragedy, and allows herself to explore the scope of it. Nothing about the book was overly dramatic or emotional, but she still allowed herself to explore her grief, in a self-aware way. The prologue also helped set the tone by explaining what it’s like to be a victim of random tragedy, and how sudden loss and freak accidents “happen to other people,” until they happen to you. I think the two main things that elevated this story from the expected “woe is me” tale were her unique love story with Tony, and the fact that Aitkenhead’s own mother died of cancer when she was a child. Her unconventional approach to the situation subconsciously shaped Aitkenhead’s own understanding of death, loss, and grief.
Aitkenhead and Tony met when she and her husband bought a house in Kent, down the street from Tony, who lived with his wife and teenage daughter. Aitkenhead’s husband went on a business trip shortly after, and in his absence, she found herself spending more and more time in Tony’s company. He was a drug dealer, a lot less educated, and a lot more candid and open than she. Still, they left their spouses and moved in together within a month of meeting. At one point, his cocaine addiction broke them up, but he got clean, went back to school for social work, and he and Aitkenhead were inseparable yet again. They never married, but they had two boys who were three and four when Tony drowned during their first family trip to Treasure Island, Aitkenhead’s favorite island in Jamaica. It was this community that rallied behind the family in the wake of Tony’s death.
The story of her mother’s death added a layer of complexity that the book was missing before. Not to sound like Freud, but a lot of things can be learned about a person through their relationship with their mother. Aitkenhead’s mother got cancer when she was eight, and almost immediately, she began preparing for death: making lists, writing down recipes and instructions, revising her will, writing letters. This over-preparation convinced Aitkenhead that death was nothing to fear or be sad about, if only you could write down everything you know before you go. A lot of the struggles that Aitkenhead faced in the wake of Tony’s death stemmed from their lack of anticipation of death. His will still listed his ex-wife and daughter as inheritors, all the paperwork for the house was under his name; even the title and registration for their car couldn’t be renewed by Aitkenhead. In some ways, that seems like the hardest part of losing someone without notice: all the little tasks you say you’ll get around to become the largest hurdles once you’re gone.
Overall, I think it was constructed well, with new information being presented throughout, which complicated the plot in an interesting way. It was also written very carefully, with thought given to every word; I could tell she was a journalist by the words and phrases she used, which were very often large and obscure. This created a dilemma for me as a reader. As someone who prefers to hunt for the right word, even if it is rare, I can appreciate the precision of Aitkenhead’s writing. But when she defaults to 50-cent words in every sentence, it can feel a bit laborious. I just wish she wrote at a lower level—for people who read for fun and not facts (her usual audience). While this is not an easy read, in both content and language, I did enjoy it. As someone who has yet to experience serious tragedy, I cannot relate to Aitkenhead exactly, but I felt, ironically, more prepared for it after reading her story. And I believe that’s partly why she wrote this book: to analyze her own feelings, and share them so that others may know what to expect. Whether you’re someone who’s struggling to understand a personal tragedy, or someone who just wonders what it feels like, this book is a great starting point.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Nan A. Talese. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.