Book Review

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

an excellent novel; in footnotes my concluding thoughts on the TV series The Affair

Written October 5th

This was absolutely fucking beautiful.

A short novel, 160 pages, set in contemporary London about the beginning, the middle and the end of an affair, like not “an affair” affair, really, but an affair as in a relationship.1

A glowing blurb on the cover from Candice Carty-Williams – author of the best London novel I’ve ever read, Queenie – led me in with high expectations, and it bloody delivers.

The novel is written in the second person (yes, I know, I know, I know just like White Lines, Black Truffles) and the protagonist is a young man of Ghanaian heritage, working as a professional photographer with a part time job in Oxford Circus’ Nike Town that he’s held onto for financial security since he graduated a few years earlier (almost certainly from an elite university, tho this isn’t mentioned). He meets his friend’s new girlfriend at his friend’s birthday party and between him and her (she’s an undergraduate, a dancer, studying English lit in Dublin (presumably Trinity, but this isn’t stated) there is an instant connection. They hang out a couple of times, just talking, “vibing”, whatever, and she heads back to Dublin for the new term and they stay in contact.

They are friends for a long while and spend time together when she returns to London for reading week and semester breaks etc, they visit jazz clubs and nightclubs and pubs and parties, there’s boozing and smoking (cigarettes and cannabis – the latter which remains absurdly illegal in London despite its widespread use2) and then eventually there’s sex but then there’s the long distance issue, and there is the ever threatening background of living as a young Black man in a deeply conservative country with an over-funded, under-trained, ideologically and structurally racist police force.

The Narrator is threatened with arrest for no reason other than being proximate to a fight, he is the victim of racist police profiling and he is followed by police cars… Azumah Nelson’s evocation of this never-ending background buzz of threatening institutional racism is deft and harrowing. This is not reactionary or sensationalist fiction where terrible and life-changing horrors happen repeatedly to the protagonist as a result of racism, it instead bleakly depicts the destructive, constant, current he is swimming against.

The protagonist is well-educated, financially stable (tho not rich) and is incredibly culturally astute – the book is littered with references to art, music, theatre, film, literature, to cultural institutions and to cultural life. He is charming and articulate, he is – an aside to the romantic narrative being told – getting increasing success careerwise, but the unrelenting inescapable racism and casual violence he cannot avoid wears him down, psychologically. He cannot switch off from the fear, the rage, the powerlessness, so instead he switches off from everything except work and culture, work and culture.

He drifts from his friends, he lets his beautiful romance fade away, and tho it is far from a hopeless novel, it lays bare an uncomfortable yet undeniable truth: in life, you can’t have everything, and the cruelty of prejudice and discrimination is that – for many people – the things you can’t have are the only things worth having.

A spectacular novel, thank you to my lover for gifting it to me.


1. Yesterday I finally watched the final episode of The Affair, the Dominic West/Maura Tierney/Ruth Wilson Showtime drama about an affair and its repercussions that basically finishes all its storyline by the end of season two and then carried on for three more, eventually – for the final season – ditching around 60% of the recurring cast and adding Anna Paquin (True Blood‘s Sookie Stackhouse) as a future version of one of the main character’s children, who wanders around an ecologically decimated North America, solves a murder from 30 years before tho there are no consequences for the now-old murderer, then briefly meets a prosthetic-ed up Dominic West who briefly explains that after the events of the present in the finale of the Affair he had a perfect happy life with all of the downsides of his affair forgiven and forgotten, and then he dances on the top of a cliff as the drone shooting his dance wobbles out into the Atlantic. Two episodes before the finale, Dominic West’s character is exposed as a sexual predator in a Vanity Fair article about his new novel, but even tho everything he is accused of is true, because the journalist got the information from West’s character’s ex-wife’s new boyfriend who hates Dominic West’s character, it’s all water under the bridge. The show is a bit “cake and eat it, too”: yes, it acknowledges that it is bad for men to behave like this, but, hey, it’s not like Noah Solloway (finally remembered the character’s name) actually raped anyone (even tho there was an “ambiguous” sex scene in an early season that was essentially sexual assault, tho the other character involved doesn’t live to the final season so the producers are like *shrug*, I suppose), so meh, ey? It’s a fun show, but it’s central conceit for the first two seasons is how different people’s memories of the same events are different, and this shifting of perspectives continues even when there is no longer a framing device to explain or justify it. (The first season has interviews with detectives, the second season has a trial – there is a murder to be solved). Anyway, the ending – cheeky Dominic West, again, riding happy into the sunset (why has he never been a contender for Bond?) – reminded me of that time a couple of years ago when Dominic West had an irl sex scandal and he did a doorstep press conference with his wife and kids and just stood there gurning and the whole thing went away? I once referred to Silvio Berlusconi as “Europe’s last great heterosexual male”, but I think that moniker would be better applied to Dominic “Double Ooh” West.

2. No coke tho – either things have changed a lot in the past three years or Azumah Nelson’s depiction of London is missing something as essential as the Thames. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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