Monday 5 February 2024

Guest review by Jane Rogers: OPEN WATER by Caleb Azumah Nelson

"Since I finished the book its mood and flavour have haunted me and I’ve found myself thinking, with great admiration, of how technically accomplished this writer is."

Jane Rogers
has written ten novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Man-Booker longlisted and winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012. Other works include Mr Wroe's Virgins (which she dramatised as a BBC drama series), and Promised Lands (Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award). Jane also writes short stories, radio drama and adaptations, and has taught writing to a wide range of students.

Her dystopia Body Tourists is now available in paperback. For more information, see Jane's website.

This novel deservedly won the Costa First novel award in 2021. It’s narrated in the second person by a young Black man living in London. (And incidentally, it is the most successful novel-long use of the second person that I have come across. Often the second person starts to feel clunky or contrived, but here it simply pulls the reader into intimacy with the narrator.)

He meets a girl and falls in love, but nothing in his life is simple; the girl is his best friend’s girlfriend and both of them are riddled with guilt about betraying the best friend. He’s grieving for the death of his grandparents and also utterly weary of the casual racism and violence served up as standard to a young Black man in London. He’s tired of being an outsider, tired of being afraid, tired of trying to hide his fear. Nevertheless there are moments of joy and freedom, when he reaches ‘open water’: when his girlfriend tells him she loves him; when he dances at an all-Black jazz club; when he dances at Notting Hill Carnival.

This book made a huge impression on me because it’s the first thing I’ve read which has absolutely taken me inside the experience of a young Black man. I thought I understood racism, but here the reader experiences it with the narrator, and that is qualitatively different to understanding it in theory. There’s a troubled, alienated flavour to the writing, which circles around from the chronological progress of the love affair, to touch on events in the recent and distant past; at times the reader is as bewildered and lost as the narrator. But Azumah Nelson skilfully holds the novel together with key phrases which are repeated and riffed upon, in a way more reminiscent of poetry or jazz, than prose fiction. The narrator asks himself repeatedly, ‘How do you feel?’ and the use of second person makes this a question for the reader as much as the character. He refers to being ‘seen’ by other Black people, and most especially by the girl he loves; the police, who stop him and accuse him of robbery, look at him but do not see him. In this book Black people are rarely ‘seen’ as individual human beings worthy of respect, by the White population. And the painful questions, ‘What is a joint? What is a fracture? What is a break?’ recur in different orders, referring to different kinds of love and heartbreak, throughout the novel. Since I finished the book its mood and flavour have haunted me and I’ve found myself thinking, with great admiration, of how technically accomplished this writer is.

Open Water is published by Penguin.

Jane is a regular contributor to Writers Review. Here are more of her choices:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

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