If you read one book in 2021, make sure it’s Open Water.
Open Water is the debut novel from Caleb Azumah Nelson, a 26-year-old British-Ghanian writer and photographer from South East London. A couple of months ago I read The BBC National Short Story Award 2020 shortlist and was mesmerised by Nelson’s story, ‘Pray’. So, you can imagine my delight when Viking Books messaged me to ask if I wanted a copy of his new novel publishing next year. And let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint.
Open Water begins with the chance meeting of a young man and woman. They are similar in many ways: both are Black British, from South East London and are young creatives, but for them, love does not come easy. We follow their relationship as they go from friends to lovers and track how life circumstances cause them to drift and reconvene. While a love story, this book also presents a potent insight into race and masculinity and the power that comes from moments of vulnerability.
One quote that sticks with me from this book is that “death is not always physical”. Despite the promise of freedom following emancipation, power structures were built to benefit some people more than others, and therefore the Black body will always be marked out for destruction under current systems. In Open Water, the speaker repeatedly describes his lover's body: her eyes, her hair, her hands, her long limbs, even her smell. In much the same way that the speaker describes the barbershop and other Black spaces as somewhere they can be free, in his relationship with a Black woman he feels safe. The love they share is honest and beautiful, but it is constantly at odds with their external circumstances. Later representations of the Black body are seen to be a site of fear and violence. For example, the speaker begins to understand the limits to his freedom after several chance encounters with the police and witnessing the murder of a friend.
There is lots of intertextuality going on in this book. For example, there are references to Zadie Smith’s NW, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and the music of Dizzee Rascal, Isaiah Rashad and Frank Ocean to name but a few. Open water is often a metaphor used to represent life,, but I couldn’t help but visualise the film Moonlight in Nelson’s description of water, particularly in his frank discussion of masculinity and survival. I think the way Nelson incorporates all of these cultural motifs is so important in its presentation of a collective experience. This is further enforced through the second-person address of ‘you’ throughout the narrative.
Too often we consume unobtainable fictional romances which pursue a love that can solve all problems. What I loved most about this book was that it didn’t over-sentimentalise. Outside of their relationship, the speaker faces an immense battle with his mental health, grief from the death of his grandmother and the very real fear that any day may be his last. In the final chapters, the speaker notes everything he wants to say (but has always feared to) to his lover. He has experienced trauma and is afraid of feeling vulnerable; she listens and shares his pain.
I’m hoping I don’t offend by saying this, but if I were to compare this book, it felt like a cross between Sally Rooney’s Normal People and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. If this sounds good to you (how could it not?) then I would urge you to read this book. Open Water is hands down one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read all year and I predict that it will be on lots of prize lists next year.
Open Water will be published on 4th February 2021. Thank you to Viking Books for my gifted copy <3