On the Bookshelf...

Open Water

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists -- he a photographer, she a dancer -- trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence. At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

“You have always thought if you opened your mouth in open water you would drown, but if you didn't open your mouth you would suffocate. So here you are, drowning.”

There's a poetic tint to this month's Book Group read. It's a slim volume yet packed with more language than a full-length novel. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson is an astonishing read that doesn't allow for speed reading. Each word needs to be slowly read before devouring. There's an almost forensic dissection of every scene. It's as if a chef took a strawberry cheesecake and disassembled it upon the plate. A work that turns the mundane into a higher level.

Essentially, it's a love story, but this is no Milly Johnson. The two protagonists are a photographer and a dancer, introduced to each other by the dancer's current boyfriend. This is no normal love story. Intermingled with their love are echos of Police brutality, racism and coping with long-distance relationship. All this is told with wonderful prose that gets you to experience at first hand their lives. Then there's the music. Caleb uses music as a key to what is happening. It's the backdrop to the story. Each moment punctuated with a song, a mix or just plain music.

This is an extremely clever book. I've never seen Calebs photography, yet I can imagine how he takes an amazingly simple yet complex photo. It's a book that requires, no demands a second read, such is the complexity of the language. A creative writers dream.

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Review by
AJ Steel
January 9, 2024

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