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book review

Shattering memoir of an unlikely love story, a tragic drowning, and disorienting aftermath

Shutterstock/Joshua Stills

Decca Aitkenhead’s shattering memoir, “All At Sea,’’ is not for the faint of heart. A long-time journalist for the Guardian, Aitkenhead is rigorously unsentimental and unsparingly honest as she recounts the drowning death of her partner, Tony, their improbable love story, and the disorienting aftermath of the tragedy.

The opening chapter is a tour-de-force, as Aitkenhead narrates in present tense, slowly, devastatingly how Tony died. Decca, Tony, and their two young sons are on vacation in Jamaica at a beach hotel Decca has loved for 20 years. One morning, Decca watches in horror as one of her boys gets pulled out to sea by a riptide, and Tony flounders in an attempt to save him. Decca herself takes their son from Tony and swims him to safety, even as a male friend rescues Tony. But after being dragged to shore, Tony is unconscious. Aitkenhead gazes at him, uncomprehending, or perhaps in denial: “Oh Tony, I think. I know this was a proper scare — but there’s no need to ham it up and spin it out for the sake of the anecdote. Come on, Tone. Just sit up and open your eyes now so we can go back to being on holiday.’’

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Here we see the skill with which Aitkenhead captures fleeting emotional states, conjures up the “surreal slapstick pantomime” quality of the experience, and creates a striking sense of immediacy.

Tony’s death is all the more heartrending because of how much they had overcome; Decca “hadn’t seriously expected [them] . . . to make it as a couple, or have children.’’ Both in unhappy marriages to other people when they met, Decca and Tony developed an intense friendship during talks at her kitchen table, revealing vulnerabilities, sharing secrets, exposing flaws. Tony, a “tall, gregarious, good-looking mixed-race man with dreadlocks . . . came across as such a happy-go-lucky family man that you would never have guessed he wholesaled cocaine for a living and was addicted to crack.” A career criminal, he was stealing by four, a “highly proficient hustler” and dating a prostitute at 17, arrested for violent crimes in his early 20s.

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Despite their many differences, Decca is captivated by Tony, and when he kisses her, she is a goner: “[t]he intensity of joy was unlike anything I had ever known; I was weightless, delirious.” They quickly leave their spouses, but in their early months together, Decca develops serious doubts. Tony is still smoking crack, and she aborts a pregnancy. “He and I were so farcically incompatible in every way, I wondered whether the person each of us was falling for was nothing than a fantasy of physical infatuation.” Ultimately, however, they discover that their intoxicating chemistry provides the basis for building a life together.

Tony eventually goes into recovery, takes college classes, gets a job as a youth counselor, and embraces fatherhood. But it is his willingness to change that Decca finds most remarkable: “Most of us talk all the time about how we are going to change, but good intentions seldom translate into action, and rarely last even when they do.”

Decca’s mourning is complicated by practical exigencies and “unexpected challenges that vary from the comic to the macabre.” She’s now the single mother of two very young children, one of whom blames himself for his father’s death. Unsavory characters call her up demanding money or looking to settle scores. She discovers Tony has been running a “modestly sized cannabis factory” in a tent behind their barn. She learns that Tony never updated his will, and since they never married, she will be “structurally insolvent.”

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Worst of all, Decca doesn’t have “the first clue about how to grieve.” She was quite young when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her family “organised a system of bereavement in which anything as chaotic as anguish could be reasoned away.” Now, for the first time in her life, Decca is at the mercy of her feelings.

The book concludes with an account of Decca and the boys’ pilgrimage back to the Jamaican beach, and the surprising joy and release they find there. But in a sad postscript to this story, after turning in the manuscript for “All At Sea,’’ Decca is diagnosed with the same aggressive breast cancer that killed her mother. “I write because I don’t want to forget,” she tells us on her book’s opening page; no one who reads her brave and eloquent book will ever forget endearing Tony or their incandescent love story.

ALL AT SEA

By Decca Aitkenhead

Doubleday, 225 pp., $25


Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’