This review is spoiler-free!
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 by turns 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.
At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.
Having won gal-dem’s Valentine’s Day giveaway on Instagram, I got a free copy of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water in the post sometime last month. And it is an absolute gem. Open Water reads much like a love song, or like an open love letter. Characterised by rawness, vulnerability, honesty, and with Black love at its centre, it is a deeply poetic and soulful read. The book follows the reader – addressed simply as ‘you’ – as he falls (or we fall) tenderly, shyly, in love with an unnamed Black woman. He’s a photographer and she’s a dancer. But they’re both Black people in modern-day Britain, readily interpreted simply Black bodies, as targets and collateral, by the wider society in which they live. As the author often writes, ‘it is one thing to be looked at, and another to be seen’ and these two are beginning to see one another, and at the same time, themselves.
Nelson’s decision to tell this story from the man’s perspective, making it the reader’s perspective at the same time, is a profound one. Black men are rarely afforded tenderness, and in Open Water our main man, who is really the reader, or perhaps even the author himself, is allowed to experience a love and intimacy so pure. Their love story is relatable in a way that love stories often aren’t for me as a young Black woman from South East London, living in a world that was not made to consider me, and those like me. With brief mentions of Peckhamplex and their iconic £5 cinema tickets, schooling in Dulwich, and Brick Lane, Open Water felt incredibly comforting, and reassuring, to read. It felt familiar. Open Water also reads a lot like an allegory of some kind, and it’s all too easy to see yourself in the complex layers of each character, especially when one can relate to other aspects of the book.
Caleb Azumuah Nelson is a wickedly talented writer. His writing is poetic and descriptive, which feels entrancing, and makes you long for the scenarios he depicts. Though he often repeats in the book that words are flimsy, as if they lack the substance to truly convey the sheer depth of human emotion, he seems to have found a way. Despite the namelessness of our photographer and dancer, they are symbolic and representative of a wider topic at hand. There’s a lot of rawness and vulnerability between them, and sometimes tension comes with that, but at the same there is growth and an applaudable amount of character development. As wonderful as it is to see their love blossom and bloom, which is in itself a celebration of Black artistry and creativity, it is jarred by the world around them. Being Black comes with a lot of difficulty, and a lot of pain and sacrifice, and this is a reality Nelson doesn’t shy away from. In fact, this reality comes to play a substantial role in how their love unfolds across the pages.
Although Open Water is quite a short read (it’s under 200 pages) Caleb Azumah Nelson accomplishes so much with it. It already feels like the kind of book to which I can and will return. It’s largely tender and soft, though hard and unforgiving at other times, but it is a deeply beautiful read in its entirety. Much in the way that the characters’ love is a transformative experience in and of itself, the same can be said for the act of reading this book. I think we all want to really feel and experience love, but for those of us whose existences are ignored some days, then challenged and attacked the next, this desire is perhaps even more potent, and Nelson has managed to capture what that really means. He has captured an essence, or perhaps several of them.