This NetGalley read ended up being a sort of companion to Kenya Hunt’s “Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood“, as it happened to highlight the Black male experience of modern life in London where Hunt’s book concentrated on women’s experience. Two young people meet in South-East London and embark upon the arc of a relationship: it’s an experimental book and written in a different style but worth persevering with.

Caleb Azumah Nelson – “Open Water”

(06 November 2020 – from NetGalley)

There’s been a lot of talk about this long novella/short novel featuring two young Black people in London and sometimes Dublin – they are very young, one a student, one just out of university, younger than I was when I lived in London and having very different experiences, including those showing up their lack of privilege – especially the male narrator’s.

It’s evocative and poetic, very immediate, once you get past the second person singular, mostly present tense narrative voice, which does keep knocking you out of absorption in the book at the beginning. You might also spent a bit of time wondering how they could see both Piccadilly and Leicester square from one bar (the narrative does jump with little warning, so it might be two bars) or how they got a Tube to South London from Embankment. But it is absorbing and mixed in with the Millennial story of creative work and service gigs, ubers to parties all over the city (although obviously that seems weird at the moment), housing issues and class (both characters have slightly oddly been to high-class private schools, one of only a few Black students but this making for an interesting bonding experience early on), you’re brought up short by its uncompromising portrayal of what it’s like to be a Black man in London, basically only seen as a Black body, stopped and searched, witness to violence, scarred and scared. Some of the writing on this aspect is so subtle you sort of skate over it then have to work out what has just happened (a parallel experience to being a White body moving in an urban space, you presume), some more direct (but nothing you won’t be able to cope with).

There are some lovely passages using clever metaphors: on falling in love and thus making yourself vulnerable you get

You’re scared of this moment, which feels like when you wandered onto the beach to photograph lightning in the middle of a storm, volatile and gorgeous, unpredictable strands falling haphazard from the sky. You didn’t know what you would capture and you knew it was a risk, but it was something you had to do.

The falling in love might be the least interesting bits for you, too – there is much more to the book, walks through the “ordinary” streets seen through someone’s eyes who is very different from you, such a vital thing to do from time to time – often, in fact – and scenes in clubs and barbershops showing a powerful Black joy (something other books reviewed here have mentioned is so necessary as well as narratives of trauma):

You know you can be free here. Where also can you guarantee Black people gather? this is ritual shrine, ecstatic recital.

There’s a lot for you to find packed into this short, dense work. A powerful description of one type of Black masculinity; maybe one hiding beneath other portrayals of masculinty.

Thank you to Penguin UK / Viking publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The book was published on 04 February 2021.