Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson is an intimate exploration of love and the intensity at which it is injected into us and circulated inside our bloodstream. The type of love is in this book is the type of love that many including myself yearn for. Every sentence written in this book meant something, not one word, one sentence, one moment in story was wasted. It’s a beautifully crafted novel that will definitely stay with me for a very long time.
The novel is about two unamed young black British people who one day meet at a bar. He is a photographer and she is a dancer slowly trying to make their way in the world. The relationship begins as a friendship between the two but this intimately bloomsbinto a relationship. The love between these two characters is so deep and pure that you can’t help but be entranced as you follow their friendship, which subsequently turns into a relationship due to the deep connection that forms between them.
The more time they spend with each other by going to parties together, ordering food and eating it at each other’s homes, bonding over literature, and their love of the arts i.e his love of photography and her love of dance, the closer they become leading them inevitably falling in love. What I thought of the novel does really well is the way in which captures I don’t think it can be going from best friends to lovers. The author creates this feeling of tension as the the closer they become, the more scared they become as they don’t want their relationship to change they become a couple. There’s this sense that the spot that they had as friends may lose its shine.
When considering the narrative style, at first I was a bit nervous because the story was told in second person through the eyes and thoughts of the unamed male character. However, I quickly began to enjoy the narrative and how in-depth it was towardshis feelings. Essentially, he addresses his thoughts and feelings as though he is addressing the reader. It really allowed you to get inside of his mind about themes such as mental health, masculinity, and also issues such as police brutality.
I loved the dialogue between the two lovers as it was so intimate and the passion that slowly bubbles up was a joy to read. Their reflection on important issues like racism and police brutality was really eye opening. The unamed male character is stopped and stared at many times by police officers which brings to light the blatant racism black people face everyday. The character of Nelson also shares his vulnerabilities and his inability to express how he’s truly feeling inside.
“What you’re trying to say is that it’s easier for you to hide in your own darkness, then emerge quote in your own vulnerability. Not better, but easier. However, the longer you hold the end, the more likely you are to suffocate. At some point, you must breathe.”
Through the character, the author also explores black masculinity giving you a further insight into how it makes it difficult for the character and to express his feelings. A key example is when the character he wants to call his father to tell him how he feels emotionally but knows his father won’t have the words of support. As someone from the South Asian community, I related so much to this as its also the case within the south Asian community where men struggle to share their feelings due to how they will be perceived or looked upon as weak.
“You dial for your father, but you know he will not have the words. He will hide behind the guys, he’ll tell you to be a man. He will not tell you how much he hurts to, even though you can hear the shepherd in the timbre of his voice.”
The narrator also pays homage to black artists who have influenced him. In particular authors such as Zadie Smith and her novel NW. In one particular scene in the story, Nelson meets Zadie at a literary event.
“Her presence was peaceful, slow, sage-like She could see you were a little awkward, a little overwhelmed friend will swear you were close to tears – and steered the conversation.”
This was a very sweet moment in the story. Nelson also further highlights black creatives by referencing music artists such as Frank Ocean Dizzie Rascal, Isaiah Rashad Kendrick Lamar, and many others. I actually ended up making a playlist of all the songs and artists mentioned in the book.
Overall, Open Water was an incredibly moving, heartbreaking, and beautifully written novel. The atmosphere Caleb Azumah Nelson creates as the couple go from friends to lovers to was like a warm breeze touching across your face. I can’t wait to read more books by Caleb Azumah Nelson and definitely think he is a writer to watch closely in the coming years 😊.
Thank you Grove Atlantic for sending me a copy! The book is out now in the US