#BookReview Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open WaterAbout the Book

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.

Format: Paperback (160 pages)         Publisher: Viking
Publication date: 3rd February 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

Winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2021, Open Water is an inventive attempt to convey what it is like to be a Black man in today’s London and how racial prejudice by the police and other parts of society can have a damaging psychological effect.  The book also challenges commonly held ideas about masculinity, namely that men should hold their emotions in check.

The development of the relationship between the main character and a woman, whose name we also never learn, from a deeply felt friendship based on a shared love of music, dancing and art to something more is conveyed in a tender and touching way. It is she who makes the first move in putting their relationship on a more intimate footing. ‘She has swum out into open water, and it is not long before you join her.’ However, it’s a relationship that may be unable to survive in the face of an act of violence witnessed by the narrator, an act that might so nearly have happened to him, and which leaves him traumatised.

Written in the second person, the reader is encouraged to see themselves as the book’s unnamed protagonist. (For grammar nerds, the book also makes use of the historic present tense.)  Since the book references art, music and literature unfamiliar to me (although there is an accompanying playlist on Spotify), I’m not sure that it succeeded in making me experience events in a deeper way than if it had been written in the first person. In fact, given the similarities between the author and the book’s protagonist – they are both photographers, have grown up in South East London, and so on – there is an autobiographical quality to the book.

The writing is poetic in style with frequent use of repetition and utilising some imaginative similes, some of which worked better than others for me. For example, I liked the idea of the two of them being like ‘headphones wires tangling… A messy miracle’. However, the comparison of an extension lead trailing in the grass to ‘a loose thought’ or a ‘skinny whimper’ to being as ‘sharp as a butter knife’ (the whole point of butter knives surely being they are not sharp?) left me wondering if the author was trying a bit too hard to be profound.

Overall, I felt the important things the book has to say about racial prejudice, police violence and the everyday experiences of Black people, and in particular young Black men, just about survived the sometimes elaborate prose. I’m aware I’m in a minority when it comes to this since others have praised its ‘poetic brilliance’ and ‘lyrical and propulsive prose’.

In three words: Expressive, intense, thought-provoking

Try something similar: NW by Zadie Smith

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Caleb Azumah NelsonAbout the Author

Caleb Azumah Nelson is a twenty-seven-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His photography has been shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People’s Choice Prize. His short story, Pray, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020. His first novel, Open Water, won the Costa First Novel Award, was shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize.

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#BookReview China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

China RoomAbout the Book

Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days hard at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men. When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk.

Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the now-deserted farm, its ‘china room’ locked and barred. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence – his experiences of addiction, racism, and estrangement from the culture of his birth – he spends a summer in painful contemplation and recovery, finally gathering the strength to return home.

Format: Hardcover (245 pages)   Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 6th May 2021  Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

China Room is one of the books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 which was announced on 7th February. China Room is the fourth book on the list I’ve read and it was one that took some time to grow on me.

The book moves between the story of Mehar in 1929 and that of an unnamed narrator looking back from the present day (2019) to the time he spent in the Punjab as a young man. Although we never learn his name we know he is Mehar’s great-grandson. A photograph at the end of the book suggests that many of the childhood experiences he relates may reflect the author’s own.

Initially, I thought the later storyline superfluous and not as interesting as Mehar’s story which has something of the quality of a folktale about it, at least to begin with. However, the later timeline gradually gained more of my interest once I began to see the subtle parallels the author creates between the two stories. Although focussing on the members of one family separated by both time and geography, common themes emerge such as racial and gender discrimination.

Mehar’s experience is one of not being seen. For much of the time she is confined to the ‘china room’ of the title, endures conjugal visits from her husband in total darkness and is expected to be veiled at all times when outside. This contrasts with the experience of her great-grandson who recalls that as a child growing up in Britain, ‘I was always being stared at, my presence noted and remarked upon for its rarity in this town’. On the other hand, like Mehar, who is forced to keep her eyes averted when outside the ‘china room’, he confesses ‘I can’t remember ever looking up as a child without immediately feeling as if I had no right and should look away’.  Mehar and her sisters-in-law catch only glimpses of the world outside through the narrow gaps in the window of the ‘china room’, their early attention being on trying to work out which of the three brothers is their husband. In a neat touch, at one point Suraj, one of the brothers, wonders, ‘Are the women the ones who can see everything, while the men stare at black windows?’

There is some glorious writing especially the descriptions of the landscape around the farm. ‘The wheat is cloaked in sleeves of red and apricot and a nightjar perches watchfully on the well, jerking its head this way and that.’

The end of the book arrives rather suddenly and, although it ties up some loose ends, it felt a little rushed. I would have liked to learn more about Mehar’s later life and the generations between her and her great-grandson.

China Room is a quiet, unassuming novel that explores its themes with elegance and precision. It’s not my favourite of the longlisted books I’ve read so far (that would be The Fortune Men) but I can understand why it has gained a place on the list.

In three words: Subtle, eloquent, thoughtful

Try something similar: Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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Sunjeev SahotaAbout the Author

Sunjeev Sahota is the author of Ours Are the Streets and The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and won the Encore Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award. He was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013. He lives in Sheffield. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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