Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Review by Arabella Petts
Open Water tells the story of a love affair between two young Black British artists, a photographer and a dancer, their tale intertwined with a celebration of Black joy and artistry. Their relationship evolves and eventually dissolves over the course of the book, with the narrator avidly aware of the white world they inhabit.
This novel has a very different and expressive writing style, giving the narrative a twist on the typical love story. Presented beautifully with precisely placed sentences, the narrative has a rhythmic feel. The use of the second person immediately stands out as bold and unusual, implying the writer may have taken several risks within his prose. The immediacy of the second person creates the same emotional intensity for the reader that the protagonist, the photographer, experiences with the dancer, allowing us to feel every emotion that he does over the course of their relationship much more strongly.
The romance arc is combined with reflections on Black masculinity, making non-Black readers consider their personal, everyday experiences through a political lens. The protagonist continually stresses that he and his community are more than the sum of their traumas, and we can understand that these experiences are politicised out of necessity.
This novel is a pure celebration of Black identity. Referencing Black artistry of all kinds, Nelson fuses the narrative with several achievements of Black innovation, mentioning creatives from musicians such as Dizzee Rascal and directors such as Barry Jenkins, to other authors such as Zadie Smith, drawing attention to their influence on this world. The book also heavily celebrates Black masculinity and race, detailing the everyday experience of being a young Black man in a big city, using language to demonstrate how police profiling and constantly being observed can influence Black men's lives and their ability to make connections with others.
Music was clearly very influential to the novel, with song lyrics from Kendrick Lamar scattered throughout the story as a secondary way to communicate what prose alone cannot. An official Open Water playlist created by the publisher is available on online streaming services, with all of the music that is referenced in the novel as well as some songs that inspired his writing, and I’ve been told that listening whilst reading enhances the narrative even further.
After a recent re-read, I stand by my opinion that this is not only a modern classic, but also one of the best books of this century. Almost two years after this incredibly impressive debut, Azumah Nelson’s second novel, Small Worlds, will be published on 11 May, and I don’t doubt it will be just as good as his first.
Educated by Tara Westover
Review by Jenna Tomlinson
I cannot imagine a life where education is withheld from me, particularly not by my own parents nor where the consequence of such curiosity and desire for learning would be having to choose between aspirations and family. Yet, those are precisely the challenges and choices faced by Tara Westover in her memoir Educated.
Born to survivalist Mormon parents in rural Idaho, Westover's family follow a radical branch of Mormonism, with Westover recounting that even in their small community they were considered more fundamental than most. Westover's father led his family with an unpredictable paranoia, creating a tense backdrop for the reader dominated by his zealous abhorrence of all Government facets – particularly medicine and education. Throughout Westover's childhood, morality, religion and community folklore governed and controlled every aspect of her family's lives.
We follow Westover's decision, at seventeen, to be educated; she goes from BYU to Cambridge and eventually Harvard to receive her doctorate. Hard to believe that this was a young woman who, at the start of her journey, had no knowledge of the Holocaust.
Westover's life was not just one of religious challenges. The youngest of seven children, she suffered extreme emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her eldest brother; a trauma, it turns out, that was shared by her sister and other community members. It's a difficult read, but one that eventually illustrates the hold her family's beliefs have over them, when her bravery leads to a confrontation that forces her to make a break from the family.
And yet, Westover discusses parts of her childhood idyllically: the stunning landscape of “The Princess,” a sprawling mountain range beside her home; learning the skills of homeopathic medicine from her mother; finding her beautiful singing voice and being part of community theatre.
It is no surprise that Westover excelled once she found education. Her narrative voice is fresh and she has an honesty which is devoid of bias – shocking for such a heartfelt and emotional tale. For scenarios which she didn't witness first hand or for which her memory is lacking, she offers the variables up for scrutiny as a scientist would, extracting the facts and presenting the most plausible outcome whilst allowing the reader to form their own opinion. If you want a read that shows you absolutely anything is possible whilst also acknowledging such things require sacrifices, then you absolutely must read Educated.