When terrible things happen to brilliant writers, we get to savor the results of nakedly raw writing, we become privy to insights into the human condition.
Why I love it
Author, Slaughterhouse 90210
"The trouble with sadness is that it seldom produces anything new to say," writes Decca Aitkenhead in her haunting memoir about the drowning of her children's father in a freak accident in Jamaica. But Aitkenhead proves herself wrong again and again. Sad but true, when terrible things happen to brilliant writers we become privy to insights into the human condition that couldn't be articulated by those with less talent for words. All at Sea is a beautiful sublimation of grief in the wake of tragedy.
But the book is also the uplifting story of a most unlikely and powerful love affair between two remarkable people. Aitkenhead, a longtime reporter for The Guardian, is fiercely honest about her relationship with her beloved late partner, Tony. Tony is a man worthy of a memoir even if his ending hadn't been tragic: as a drug dealer and crack addict, Tony lives a hustler's life, taking care of "business" at night and waking in the late afternoon (when he's not serving time in jail). But when he and Decca meet, attraction is visceral, and Tony changes his life when they decide to have children together. Her portrait of him is remarkable: she sees all of his flaws and is not afraid to expose his weaknesses, but she also clearly loves and admires him and finds him utterly charming, and so, then, the reader does as well. That Tony drowned trying to save their son from a squall makes him a hero in newspaper articles, but he was a hero in Decca's eyes long before he passed away.
Aitkenhead is self-conscious about the act of writing, about how she must turn these devastating events into a narrative that is both accurate and compelling. Writing so recently after Tony's death (in 2014) seems dangerous given how little distance she's had: "Death is too much for the mind to register in a matter of minutes; the incalculable magnitude can only be absorbed by increment, day by day," she writes. But as she says plainly in the book's introduction, "I don't want to forget." So she chronicles their relationship — its ups and downs and its joys and complexities—for herself and her two young sons. That the reader also gets to savor the results of such nakedly raw writing is an added bonus. All at Sea is not a story of finding redemption in calamity, but rather, of relearning how to live a life very different from how the author planned it to be. We can't control who we love or what happens to them or even how we grieve for them, but there is some control to be found in writing about them, by sharing the stories to honor those we love.