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Open Water - Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)

Open Water is an ambitious and at times confronting novel that contrasts a modern story of young love against a broader social commentary on racial prejudice and masculinity. The book is deeply lyrical, with poetic passages and refrains that echo the book's soundtrack of hip hop references that are littered throughout.

The story follows two young people who are falling in love in London in 2017. After meeting in a pub in South East London, they circle around each other, initially unsure of what their feelings mean or where they are going. Both are Black British, and have experienced alienation after winning scholarships to prestigious, predominantly white private schools. Now, as artists, they are struggling to make sense of a society which is at once their home and a place that, at times, violently rejects them.

Perhaps the most obvious element of the novel, when you first read it, is that it's written in the second person. The strong 'you' of the narrator is a little unsettling at first, but it works to put your right in the shoes of the protagonist. As the novel goes on, I think that Azumah Nelson's narrator is really speaking to himself, and finding a language to work through what he has experienced. The protagonist frequently remarks that words are insufficient, and his journey reflects the author's attempt to describe the struggle to express the experience of trauma.

As I read the book, I was drawn into the love story but found the elements of trauma and racial discrimination quite confronting and jarring. On reflection, I think Azumah Nelson is doing something important in exploring how this kind of trauma can come to insidiously infect every aspect of a person's life. This book is particularly poignant in our current climate, following the Black Lives Matter movement and, more recently in Australia, the Voice Referendum, as Open Water deals explicitly not just with race but with the broader experience of people being and feeling unseen and unheard.

The book's interrogation of masculinity is also central, as the protagonist struggles, and almost refuses, to open up about the social and emotional struggles he faces. As a club that prides itself on promoting the idea of men speaking up, both for themselves and those who can't speak for themselves, this is an important read for TGBC.

Paul Guardiani (South Barwon Chapter)

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