Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is an intensely powerful novel about being seen; not observed or objectified, but seen in all the ways that make a person what they are. Because of this Open Water is more than a love story – which it is: two black artists meet, become best friends and fall in love. It is also an exploration of vulnerability and honesty, a search for freedom in a white world that sees the black body, and particularly the black male body as a perpetrator of violence, as ignorant and illiterate, as criminal. 

More than anything else I’ve read, Caleb Azumah Nelson explores what it means to feel the inevitable fear brought on by this objectification; the fear that life is survived, not lived, because any day could be the day that your life is cut short by some kind of oppressive act, mostly enacted by the police.

This fear is then compounded by a desire to repress and suppress, a fear mingled with anger, also suppressed. The beautiful central character, a photographer – which intensifies the exploration of image and objectification – even in the act of expressing his fear, anger and depression which pushes the rhythms of his heart off-kilter (more metaphor embodied, trauma literary living in his flesh), has to do so at an awkward distance from himself in the liminal space of the second person. 

Moments of police brutality are frequent but when he loses a friend, his pain is intensified. When he is then asked by his girlfriend to talk about what is wrong he can only say ‘nothing’ because the continued witness of structural racism belittles his experience, makes it commonplace when of course it needs to be shouted out, expressed, and yet how can it be when to talk will put him in a place of vulnerability, will have him swimming in open water without a safety net?

Love, like freedom, requires a trust, a faith in the safe space of the relationship. His fear pushes love to the limit.

Beautiful, painful, expressed in rhythmic beats that move through the space of their love in ways that don’t always feel linear, Open Water is a lyrical novel with repeated motifs that pleads to be heard, longs to be seen. I feel it is probably best read quickly, as an outpouring, and then returned to. I highlighted so many sentences and sections, return is as inevitable for the reader as it is for the protagonist.

I don’t always get everything the novel is saying, or all of its references. How could I? But I’m blown away by this book even when I’m lost in it. I really hope Open Water makes the waves it should. Out in February 2021, pre-order it now.

I’ll be reviewing Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips next.

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