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.
I am extremely grateful to Alexia Thomaidis at Viking Books for sending me a proof copy of this debut novel in exchange for an honest review. I managed to wait all of about four hours after receiving the book before – excuse the pun – diving in.
Days later, I am still thinking about this novel on an hourly basis. I don’t think I am going to be able to find the words to do this book justice. Reading Open Water is such a powerful, exquisite pleasure. The prose is delicate, poetic, unfurling in gorgeous tendrils across the page, wrapping you up in its sheer beauty. The second person “you” invites empathy with the protagonist, as we see the world through his eyes, as if staring out through a camera. Indeed, there is a cinematic feel to the novel, and the beautiful trailer currently circulating captures the gentle light that seems to suffuse the pages detailing the young couple’s slow, tentative movement from friendship into love. It is a wonderfully tender (with all its meanings, both soft and raw) depiction of the complicated nature of falling in love, one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
And yet there is another thread that runs alongside the love story, a second narrative that casts a shadow, insidiously weaving trauma and conflict into the golden tapestry of two beautiful souls falling in love. I have read some (though not enough) nonfiction about systemic racism and societal racial stereotyping, but it is here in this fictional story that I felt that my understanding of the cold, hard, damaging truth of what it means to experience prejudice on a daily basis, to fear for your very survival, to know that you are seen as a body only, took a leap forward. The hardening of the protagonist’s psyche, the protective armour he is forced to coat himself with in order to somehow try and cope with the daily struggle of being profiled for “matching a description” – this book shows the absolutely traumatic, tragic effects of such survival tactics in a way that is utterly heartbreaking. The direct link between the exhausting, endless cycle of prejudice and the breakdown of a loving relationship is one that hits hard. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Open Water is an all-consuming experience. It is so clever in its exploration of artistry; the book somehow moves beyond the novel form to encompass all art, so that I could imagine the story as a musical score, or a perfectly choreographed dance, or a sculpture of two figures trying to reach out for each other, their fingertips almost touching. It is visual, balletic, sensory – and, like the best love stories, and the best art, it leaves a space for interpretation.
I feel like this is a novel that will affect people in different ways, that will resonate differently with each reader. It feels deeply important, timeless and yet so timely, as rich a tragedy as any I have read and yet it folds its drama in gently, with care and skill and absolutely staggering talent on the part of the author. I was mesmerised as I read, and I will be turning this story over in my mind for a long time to come. Caleb Azumah Nelson has created something very special indeed: Open Water is a true work of art.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson is published by Viking Books on 4th February. It is available to preorder here.