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BOOK REVIEW: All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead

7 October 2016

Out Now 

Review by Amrita Paul

 

The perks of moving out of your house by seventeen, something of an anomaly in a middle class Indian background, was that your parents found it unnecessary to bother you with their qualms or illnesses, or anybody else’s in the family for that matter. So, when my brother had a serious accident in the second year of my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t told about it until he regained consciousness a week later. When my grandmother passed away in 2014 after succumbing to a wrong dose of insulin administered by my 90-year old grandfather, I was the last one in my family to hear about it. A year later, when I was finally home and out at the movies with a friend, my father met us halfway and rushed back home with the keys. Nobody would tell me what had happened, that my grandfather was dying. In fact, my mother was insistent that I finished the film. My granddad had died that morning, well before I left my house, his body was cremated before I got home. Ma said he didn’t look like himself on his deathbed and she didn’t want that to be my last image of him. And so I was left out of it all.

When I was in high school, my maternal grandmother passed away. Her body was brought to my uncle’s house. My mother and aunties wept, kissing their mother repeatedly. My 10-year-old cousin sobbed beside me. Meanwhile, I was unemotional and almost unmoved by the hysteria around me. I, a girl who wept ceaselessly in Shah Rukh Khan movies, couldn’t grieve at my own grandmother’s death.

Reading Decca Aitkenhead’s All At Sea was a cathartic experience for me. The blurb tells you well in advance that the book hinges on the sudden death of the author’s partner, Tony, on their family vacation in Jamaica, and its repercussions on the author and her two young sons. The author strikes a figure willing to let her defences crumble, so that so that she can build herself back up again. Aitkenhead writes in her book that after she witnessed her mother’s death at 10, she refused to be bothered by anyone else’s death: “I am an expert at grief avoidance…But Tony’s death happened too quickly for my normal defences to organise quickly, and so for the first time, I am at the mercy of grief.”

But The Guardian journalist’s memories, and her recounting of them, paint a vivid picture of Tony in the reader’s head. The infant given up for adoption by his young mother, the teenager who was always out looking for trouble, the adult who had been a criminal but imbued kindness and charm in any conversation he was part of.

‘Having survived homelessness, prison and life-threatening violence he felt equal to anything, and his self-belief made the world glitter with possibility.’

Forever a romantic, I found myself getting giddy in the pages Aitkenhead writes about her falling in love with Tony. I cried on tube rides learning how her 4-year-old son Jack, blamed himself for his father’s death. Only if he hadn’t gone swimming in the ocean, Tony would still be alive. Jack doesn’t want his mother to cry in front of him, and his little brother Joe asks his mum ‘the story of how Tony died-ed everyday.’ The author too, struggles with nightmares where Tony comes back to her life, saying that he had only pretended to be dead. She gets up with a start and weeps with relief: ‘I weep for the obscenity of being glad he is still dead.’

In the prologue Aitkenhead remembers how Tony used to tell her to ‘think less and feel more’. This book is thus, charged with feelings, a myriad of emotions, an unleashing which slowly makes the sadness bearable. The author is apprehensive at first that even if she takes control of her life’s narrative, she would not be able to detach herself ‘from my own story and escape.’

But time is an empathic healer. Nine months later, the author returns with her boys to the beach that had taken their father’s life. With the sun about to set, they go swimming and things begin to feel different. ‘We are no longer those broken ghosts,’ says the author.

I turned the last page of the book with the knowledge that I was going to return to it again. For being so heartbreakingly honest about loss and how it unravels different people in different ways. But even for the most stoic of us, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The perks of moving out of your house by seventeen, something of an anomaly in a middle class Indian background, was that your parents found it unnecessary to bother you with their qualms or illnesses, or anybody else’s in the family for that matter. So, when my brother had a serious accident in the second year of my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t told about it until he regained consciousness a week later. When my grandmother passed away in 2014 after succumbing to a wrong dose of insulin administered by my 90-year old grandfather, I was the last one in my family to hear about it. A year later, when I was finally home and out at the movies with a friend, my father met us halfway and rushed back home with the keys. Nobody would tell me what had happened, that my grandfather was dying. In fact, my mother was insistent that I finished the film. My granddad had died that morning, well before I left my house, his body was cremated before I got home. Ma said he didn’t look like himself on his deathbed and she didn’t want that to be my last image of him. And so I was left out of it all.

When I was in high school, my maternal grandmother passed away. Her body was brought to my uncle’s house. My mother and aunties wept, kissing their mother repeatedly. My 10-year-old cousin sobbed beside me. Meanwhile, I was unemotional and almost unmoved by the hysteria around me. I, a girl who wept ceaselessly in Shah Rukh Khan movies, couldn’t grieve at my own grandmother’s death.

Reading Decca Aitkenhead’s All At Sea was a cathartic experience for me. The blurb tells you well in advance that the book hinges on the sudden death of the author’s partner, Tony, on their family vacation in Jamaica, and its repercussions on the author and her two young sons. The author strikes a figure willing to let her defences crumble, so that so that she can build herself back up again. Aitkenhead writes in her book that after she witnessed her mother’s death at 10, she refused to be bothered by anyone else’s death: “I am an expert at grief avoidance…But Tony’s death happened too quickly for my normal defences to organise quickly, and so for the first time, I am at the mercy of grief.”

But The Guardian journalist’s memories, and her recounting of them, paint a vivid picture of Tony in the reader’s head. The infant given up for adoption by his young mother, the teenager who was always out looking for trouble, the adult who had been a criminal but imbued kindness and charm in any conversation he was part of.

‘Having survived homelessness, prison and life-threatening violence he felt equal to anything, and his self-belief made the world glitter with possibility.’

Forever a romantic, I found myself getting giddy in the pages Aitkenhead writes about her falling in love with Tony. I cried on tube rides learning how her 4-year-old son Jack, blamed himself for his father’s death. Only if he hadn’t gone swimming in the ocean, Tony would still be alive. Jack doesn’t want his mother to cry in front of him, and his little brother Joe asks his mum ‘the story of how Tony died-ed everyday.’ The author too, struggles with nightmares where Tony comes back to her life, saying that he had only pretended to be dead. She gets up with a start and weeps with relief: ‘I weep for the obscenity of being glad he is still dead.’

In the prologue Aitkenhead remembers how Tony used to tell her to ‘think less and feel more’. This book is thus, charged with feelings, a myriad of emotions, an unleashing which slowly makes the sadness bearable. The author is apprehensive at first that even if she takes control of her life’s narrative, she would not be able to detach herself ‘from my own story and escape.’

But time is an empathic healer. Nine months later, the author returns with her boys to the beach that had taken their father’s life. With the sun about to set, they go swimming and things begin to feel different. ‘We are no longer those broken ghosts,’ says the author.

I turned the last page of the book with the knowledge that I was going to return to it again. For being so heartbreakingly honest about loss and how it unravels different people in different ways. But even for the most stoic of us, there is light at the end of the tunnel.