EVENT REVIEW: Cathy Rentzenbrink and Decca Aitkenhead: Love and Loss

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Saturday 8th October
Palace Green Library
Review by Amrita Paul

The trouble with grief is that it’s relentless. Cathy Rentzenbrink and Decca Aitkenhead are both established writers, yet as they read their books, words tumble out too quickly, there is an occasional stutter. Rentzenbrink, who labels herself as an extrovert, enters into a sombre brooding state with a ‘massive reluctance to turn the page’ as she reads an extract recounting her last night out with her brother Matty, who had a fatal accident after she returned home. Through the evening she is visibly in tears and chokes up while speaking of her brother, who was just a year younger than her.

Aitkenhead, on the other hand has trouble grieving. As a little girl of 10, she had pledged not to, after her mother died of cancer. And yet, when her partner of ten years drowned at a beach in Jamaica where they were on a holiday, she was compelled to, anxious that she wasn’t complying with the traditional norms of mourning for the father of her two sons. It cost her ‘more than I had’ to recount the incident to friends and family over and over again. And yet she never thought about putting it to words, until it was suggested to her by a friend.

Rentzenbrink wanted to write from a young age, as soon as she knew what words were. Authors usually don’t write about grief until they are already established, but she knew that she had to write about it first, ‘it would always be there if I didn’t.’

Both the authors agreed that at a moment of sudden yet acute trauma, one vows to never forget it. But memories are unreliable, big things are forgotten while the small, incidental details are remembered.

Aitkenhead’s partner Tony had been a drug dealer and spent several years in prison before turning his life around and going to university in his forties. She doesn’t attempt to eulogise Tony, who died saving his son, a symbol of ghostly perfection for her children to grow around. So hers is a no-holds barred account of a man, who was once just her neighbour and sold cocaine for a living.

Rentzenbrink discusses the eight years that her brother was in a comatose state. In her writing there are memories of her dancing around the room, ‘staring into his eyes thinking he was there.’ She is frustrated about how fiction tends to romanticise such experiences as people going through a ‘sleeping beauty stage’ meaning no one truly acknowledges the implications of keeping a person alive under such conditions. ‘It facilitates denial, it took me four years to admit to myself, that it would be better for Matty if he was dead.’

Both the authors pat each other’s backs while remembering the most painful moments of their lives. According to both, writing about it wasn’t necessarily a cathartic process, it was just the beginning in terms of trying to make sense of it all. And at the end, surrendering editorial control was liberating. Their stories are now out in the world. As Rentzenbrink puts it, ‘The events don’t become bigger, they just become less shit.’