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 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.
*This ARC was sent to me by Penguin Viking Books, please read our disclaimer policy for more information*
Caleb Azumah Nelson can write.
That’s an undeniable fact.
You can’t even argue with it. He can write exceptionally well.
This debut…DEBUT? Am I missing something here? I feel like the level for debut writers is increasing year after year. I didn’t think it could get any better than last year and then I read Open Water…
I was left FLOORED. Nelson takes us on a journey as we explore a relationship between a young Black British couple as they fall in love.
But it’s not just a love story.
It’s layered with backstory about racism, masculinity and an very deep, revealing exposure of police brutality against Black bodies. Revealing the mental trauma that is left behind grows roots and blooms into self-destruction, isolation and so much more.
The writing was sinply beautiful. Nelson is lyrical in the way he writes this love story. It was amazing to read such excellent writing. There were lines that I simply wanted to remember forever. Messages and advice wrapped up in these words that paint a profound picture.
“To be you is to apologise and often that comes in the form of suppression. That suppression is indiscriminate. That suppression knows not when it will spill. What you’re trying to say is that it’s easier for you to hide in your own darkness, than emerge cloaked in your own vulnerability. Not better, but easier. However the longer you hold it in, the more likely you are to suffocate. At some point, you must breathe.”
It was refreshing and yet, so beautiful to read about this novel through a males perspective. It was an insight into the Black British experience. Caleb Azumah Nelson touched on how Black men struggle to express their emotions, the comfort and security of the barber shop and the destructive stereotyping given to them from a young age. He covers so much in such a short book. The flashbacks of police brutality were hard to read and Nelson does such a good job in really detailing the vulnerability and mental scarring that is left behind. The paranoia, constant questioning and distrust that is directed towards the police afterwards.
“That he, beautiful Black person in gorgeous Black body, was born violent and dangerous, this assumption, impossible to hide, manifesting in every word and glance and action, and every word and glance and action ingested and internalised, and it’s unfair and unjust, this sort of death – being asked to live so constrained is a death of sorts.”
I loved how this felt like Nelson’s letter to Black men telling them that despite everything they should let themselves be vulnerable to those that care, before they drive others away.
How can I not talk about the way Nelson presents love in this novel. The pain, joy and pleasure that comes with finding someone you connect with on all levels. You truly get the sense that the love these two characters share is profound and comes from their soul. They’re connected on many different levels. It’s a love that’s rare, scary but should be treasured.
“She tells you she loves you and no you know that you don’t have to be the sum of your traumas, that multiples truths exist, that you love her too.” – p.g. 108
Whilst, I personally felt like the use of second person narration made the story more beautiful and personal. I can see why it would leave some people confused. Please be aware that the entire novel is in second person narration. There were times where I felt a little disconnected from the narrator, which I knew wasn’t the intention at all. I think if you read this in one sitting it may help and being that it’s only 145 pages, it is possible.
Nelson touches on many different places in South East London and the Black British experience. I loved the mentions of Zadie Smith, Dizzie Rascal, Frank Ocean and even, Nottinghill Carnival. This felt very much like a Black British novel with experiences, I, myself, can relate to.
Interwoven throughout every page is a profound message of “what does it mean to be seen?” Our narrator takes photographs for a living and loves capturing people’s essence on camera but he never truly felt like someone saw him for him, rather than just a Black man with all the stereotyping that comes with it. Which is why the love between our two characters felt even more special because of the way she truly sees him.
Give Caleb Azumah Nelson his flowers.
He deserves it and more.