Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Published by Grove Press, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Open Water follows a young Black British couple through their tentative yet passionate relationship, as they attempt to navigate their feelings for each other (and themselves) within the context of systemic racism.
As the central couple’s love blossoms, so too does their friendship. This raises the stakes in terms of what they stand to lose should things not work out, with the author capturing how simultaneously beautiful and daunting it can be to fall for your best friend. Caleb Azumah Nelson also does a fantastic job of conveying the difficulty inherent to being open with someone when society has conditioned you to supress so much of yourself; the struggle to accept happiness when you’ve been made to feel like you don’t deserve it, as so many Black people have.
The physicality of their relationship is so important; to find intimacy, safety, and understanding with a fellow Black body, when to simply exist within one is to be at risk on the street. I also really admired the recurring look at the importance of the arts as a means for Black people to explore and express their cultural identities on their own terms, when they are otherwise made to feel unseen and unheard.
The author has such a knack for sustaining a very specific mood. An air of balmy heat hangs over the entire narrative, the balance of nostalgia and melancholy making for a hugely absorbing experience. In terms of descriptive detail, an ability to create atmosphere, and to convey emotional depth, the prose is fantastic. The only blips for me throughout the whole reading experience were a few instances in which the dialogue felt awkward; characters striving for philosophical profundity in situations that didn’t feel entirely believable. One of the book’s key narrative and emotional peaks is also framed in a needlessly convenient, thematically heavy-handed way, when the rest of the book is carried by such an understated grace.
Initially, I was hesitant about the book being presented in second-person, as though addressed directly to the reader. This is a notoriously difficult device to pull off, and though I worried it was going to feel like a superfluous creative choice, its relevance becomes clear as the story progresses; ultimately serving as an astute means of furthering the author’s look at identity, and the struggle to truly see yourself without first stepping back to take in the bigger picture.
Tender, wise, and moving, Open Water appears unassuming, but ultimately lands a sucker punch. It marks Caleb Azumah Nelson as an exciting new voice on the literary scene, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Thank you to the publisher for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.