Why Decca Aitkenhead’s tale of grief is also a coming-of-age story

Her memoir All at Sea relates how, after her husband drowned, Aitkenhead was forced to confront the meaning of family, faith and life.

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Few of us expect to die while on a family holiday. Some years ago in Cornwall, I learned just how close my two small children had come to disaster on a secluded beach. At first, I had no idea whether the tide was coming in or going out; I was enjoying the post-Easter sun when, to my alarm, I saw the sandpit I had dug earlier disappear under foam. It was an incoming tide and it was coming in fast. Within seconds, sea­water was sluicing round us in the cove, cutting off our exit. We were lucky. A police helicopter and then a lifeboat appeared.

I was reminded of that episode while reading All at Sea, Decca Aitkenhead’s account of her partner’s recent death in Jamaica and its aftermath. In May 2014, Tony Wilkinson drowned while attempting to rescue one of his two sons by Aitkenhead, Jake. The couple owned real estate on the island’s “heart-stoppingly beautiful” south coast, where the tourism is reckoned to be a cut above the packaged hedonism to the north in Montego Bay, with its shiny, Bob Marley-themed shopping arcades.

On a cloudless Caribbean morning, Aitkenhead was attending a yoga class in a spa hotel when she thought she saw trouble some way out at sea. Wilkinson was waving desperately for help as the undertow sucked him down. In a panic, she ran into the waves and managed to rescue Jake; it took ten minutes for her partner to die. All this happened under the bright sunlight of Calabash Bay but only a foreigner could think of Jamaica as a “paradise”. At certain times of the month, as elsewhere in the West Indies, the moon exerts a powerful gravitational pull on the sea, making it treacherous.

Widowed at 43, Aitkenhead writes of the “enormity” of her loss but I wonder if she means that exactly. Bereavement can have an edge of something “wicked” or “immoral” but surely not in this case. A former drug dealer, Wilkinson reformed himself to become a charity worker at Kids Company under Camila Batmanghelidjh, where everyone seemed to have fallen for his “geezerish” charm. Twelve months earlier, he and Aitkenhead had begun to restore a 16th-century farmhouse in Tunbridge Wells. In addition, they had two London rental flats as well as a dependably good-humoured cleaner from Albania. What more could a family want from life?

The “enormity” (again, that word) of the responsibility of organising the funeral leaves Aitkenhead feeling frightened. Jamaicans may say of the dead and the dying that they are “travelling” – travelling on to a better world. (For a lively send-off, hymns boom from giant speaker boxes while mourners drink from bottles of Dragon Stout.) Aitkenhead, raised by atheist parents, has no revivalist-inspired beliefs to draw on. The consolation that we might join our loved ones in an afterlife is anathema to her.

On her return to Jamaica, however, she comes to understand that the meaning of life is everywhere connected to what it means to die. The Jamaican experience of death is one of pathos, occasional comedy and a life-affirming sense of the funeral as fun-for-all. In some ways, All at Sea is a coming-of-age memoir. For years, Aitkenhead was sniffily disapproving of those who extol family values. (“In my head the word was always pronounced in the estuary vowels of a Sun editorial – ‘faaah-mly’.”) Now, to her amazement, she longs for the stability of the two-parent family and even allows herself to be “talked into” considering an exclusive prep school for her children.

Some readers may find the author’s harping on about class and privilege defensive. (“Because I am reasonably well-spoken, these days people often assume I come from money.”) Nevertheless, All at Sea will be a useful guide for the lonely and those stranded in the backwash of bereavement. While the book is necessarily lachrymose and self-regarding (“The invulnerability so central to my own self-image turns out to have been a delusion”), it is often nicely written and moving.

Ian Thomson is the author of The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica  (Faber & Faber)

All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead is published by Fourth Estate (240pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind