Open Water is a beautiful, lyrical novella by the young British Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson, named as one of The Observer’s 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2021. I read it because our bookshop co-hosted an event with Caleb recently, and it was so enjoyable to hear him talk about the themes within the book – he really is a very thoughtful and engaging speaker.
The book – which focuses on two central protagonists, one male, one female, both black and in their early twenties – is at once both a tender love story and a searing insight into what it feels to be young, black and male in the South London of recent years. (While both characters are crucial to the narrative, the male protagonist is Nelson’s main focus.)
The young man (a photographer) and the young woman (a dancer) meet while the latter is still in a relationship with a mutual friend, Samuel. This earlier relationship soon dissolves as a hesitant, yet close bond develops between the two main protagonists – not sexual at first, although their connection to one another is deeply soulful.
As she does so, reclining into the sofa, she reaches for your hand, and you take it, fitting together like this is an everyday. She’s wearing rings on her fore and ring fingers, the bands cool between your own. Neither of you dare look at one another as you hold this heavy moment in your hands. You’re light-headed, and warm. You’re both silent. You’re both wondering what it could mean that desire could manifest in this way, so loud for such a tender touch. It’s she who breaks the moment (p. 44)
There is a somewhat fragmentary nature to the couple’s relationship, partly imposed by periods of physical separation when the young woman returns to Dublin to study. Nelson writes beautifully about the sensation of progressing from friendship to love, how our innermost feelings can be exhilarating yet also expose a noticeable sense of vulnerability. The simple pleasures of shared moments – eating a pizza together curled up on the sofa, the buzz and wind-down of a night out – lend the narrative a genuine emotional sensitivity.
Through his use of a second-person narrative, Nelson imbues this story with a wonderful combination of intimacy and immediacy, a feeling that fits so naturally with the novella’s intertwined themes. The fact that we never learn the names of Nelson’s two main protagonists also gives the story a sense of universality – while these individuals’ experiences are deeply personal, they will also likely resonate with many of us, hopefully in a variety of different ways.
Nelson is particularly strong when it comes to conveying the experience of inhabiting a black body, that sense of being stared at but not seen – certainly not as a person with emotions and feelings.
…and so you hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else. (pp. 118–119)
What really comes across here is the fear young black men experience on a day-to-day basis. Will today be a day when they are stopped and searched? Will today be a day of confrontation? Will today be the day they lose their life?
Also threaded through the story are vignettes highlighting the inspiration that can come from the creative arts. These examples, drawn from various black writers and filmmakers, are clearly touchstones for the young man, intertwined as they are with his innermost thoughts and feelings. I was delighted to see a mention of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk here – both the film and the book are great favourites of mine, and if they’re of interest you can read my brief thoughts on the novel via the link.
As the narrative unfolds, it is possible to detect a growing sense of danger, the feeling that confrontation or violence could erupt at any given moment. Without wishing to give too much away, an incident occurs that causes the young man to withdraw into himself, unable to verbalise the situation’s emotional impact. It’s a development that forces a rupture in the central relationship, a wound that cuts swift and deep, as sharp as a knife.
Nelson has succeeded in writing a delicately balanced novel which is by turns tender, poetic, powerful and thoughtful. It is a story for our times, an exploration of love, creativity and the need to be seen, especially in a world where there is fear and prejudice. An exciting new voice in literature that deserves to be heard.
Open Water is published by Viking, an imprint of PRH; personal copy.