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Open Water Review


Do you ever get the feeling that a book is just a little bit too slick, a little bit too smooth, a little bit too poetic, a little bit too elegant? It's a cliche, and a positive one, to say that you "lose yourself" in the pages of a book, but there's the corollary to this - that a book slides over you without you feeling it go by, that it doesn't leave anything to touch you, just a slimy trail of elegance in its path. It's a feeling that Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson harbors, of a book that feels too refined for its own good, one brilliantly crafted to hit every element of what a modern socially conscious and aware book should be in the first years of the 3rd decade of the 21st century.

Perhaps this sounds like a petty critique of a book, a highly subjective one. After all, plenty of other people could say that it is a beautiful and elegant book that truly spoke to them and whose writing swept them along from page to page. Certainly, there are some aspects of the prose that strike you - the sensuality of its descriptions of a young love, the sultry hotness of summer in London, the emotional power of the feelings which sweep through the main character, the music and atmosphere of black culture and life. But to me much of it feels overdrawn, with the main character's intense ups and downs, his emotional roller coaster, the tears and depression that stalk the pages. It feels overwrought, and perhaps this is why its long melodramatic sentences - using control + F I found that the word "seed," as in a seed planted in the ground that bears fruit as a reference to their relationship is used no less than 6 times - slide past without registering.

It is a small element of the book but one which encapsulates what strikes me about it - the way that it presents British police as pervasively stopping black men, while armed with guns. I am not from Britain so perhaps it is wrong of me to try to enter myself into knowing about it, but British police don't carry guns. They have some small units with guns for intense situations, but the average British bobby has a club or a tazer. This isn't to say that police can't cause immense trauma and pain - even "just" with batons, you can do some horrific emotional damage to other people, and the way that suspicion was constantly directed onto the main character or others simply for the fact that they are black - this feels very genuine and it is easy to comprehend the pain and trauma that it generates. But by including the guns it makes it feel less like a novel set in Britain, and instead what the book feels like to me - something written by someone plugged into the international social media sphere and less into the place they live in. It is a small detail certainly, but small details have a big effect on books.

This explains I think too, some of the elements of the book that seem odd to me, in how very modern they are. The relationship between the man and the woman - conspicuously their names are not used throughout - is incredibly passionate and strong, rapidly taking off and heavy with love, mutual adoration, a love story sparked by two seemingly physically attractive people catching each other's gaze across a bar. They fall head over heels for each other and a whole lot more as the book's sensual side takes us in, but despite this they are never comfortable with saying to each other that they are partners, that they are more than just "friends," with formalizing their heady love affair. It feels like a very modern relationship, since apparently that is how many are - "complicated", with two people in love but unwilling to formally express it. Their way of meeting - in a bar - their typical social activities - going to bars and drinking - their cosmopolitan life in the city where their work is absent from their discussions, where Uber seems to be their primary means of travel - in this sense it is a documentary of the author's own class and position.

Nelson tries to hit many elements in his book - love, atmosphere, and the feeling of racism and race in Britain. Their very disjointedness does make them shocking and powerful - that the main character lives a life of cosmopolitan assuredness and general contentment, and that he still faces the feeling of ostracism and fear from society. Some elements of it which strike me from this treatment of racism are the most generally underplayed ones, like his time in a school where he was never explicitly discriminated against, was even treated well, but the way he was treated was always somewhat different than other people, that he always felt that he had a slight barrier from the rest of his peers. As a look into the mindset of black men in the UK and their experiences, it's a very good window. Certainly, some elements of it come off as less genuine due to the way that the controversy over guns develops, but it still does feel like a genuine and emotionally resonant piece.

There are readers who will enjoy this book much more than me certainly, who will find its sleek and smooth poetic prose to be a joy instead of melodramatic and a slippery ride without anything to clamp onto, who won't mind the extreme drama of its pages. And it does present interesting facets of British black life. But it also feels like a book which tries so dreadfully hard to be smooth, elegant, beautiful, modern, that it also feels curiously empty and almost artificial, one which manages to have every tag that you would look for on a socially engaged book and which knows its market too well.

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