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All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead

All at Sea


We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Decca Aitkenhead, on your first book!

by Decca Aitkenhead

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Quick take

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.

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‘The thing to remember about this story is that every word is true. 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.’

On a hot still morning on a beautiful beach in Jamaica, Decca Aitkenhead’s life changed for ever.

Her four-year-old boy was paddling peacefully at the water’s edge when a wave pulled him out to sea. Her partner, Tony, swam out and saved their son’s life – then drowned before her eyes.

When Decca and Tony first met a decade earlier, they became the most improbable couple in London. She was an award-winning Guardian journalist, famous for interviewing leading politicians. He was a dreadlocked criminal with a history of drug-dealing and violence. No one thought the romance would last, but it did. Until the tide swept Tony away, plunging Decca into the dark chasm of random tragedy.

Exploring race and redemption, privilege and prejudice, ALL AT SEA is a remarkable story of love and loss, of how one couple changed each other’s lives and of what a sudden death can do to the people who survive.

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Why I love it

"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.

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Member ratings (531)

  • Erin J.

    Lancaster, SC

    Not only is she a great writer, but Aitkenhead is perhaps even more impressive for her ability to parse out a personal tragedy, find new sources of joy, and to share with the world. Be ready to cry!

  • Amelia P.

    Roxbury, MA

    Aitkenhead's portrayal of her grief and the life she lived with and without her partner was astonishingly real and wonderfully written. A lesson on grief and what comes after everyone should read!

  • Valerie M.

    New York, NY

    It might seem weird but I enjoyed this story of loss. It's heartbreaking but I liked how the author didn't shy away from unflattering details about who her husband really was and herself as well.

  • Sarah M.

    Temperance, MI

    This is now one of my favorite books! Decca Aitkenhead writes so beautifully, you think she's sitting in the room telling this story in person. You'll laugh and cry and never want it to end.

  • Kelsey B.

    Port Jervis, NY

    Decca Aitkenhead's heartbreaking journey from the moment she met Tony to the moment he died really captures what loss means. There's no one way to grieve and Decca perfectly described that.

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