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Culture Literature

Book Review: Caleb Azumah Nelson, ‘Open Water’

In the last issue of The Student, featuring a selection of cultural recommendations for Black History Month, one of the titles was Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. At the end of this month, I review it to keep the discussion alive – and perhaps encourage you to read something refreshing this Autumn.

Published in 2021, Open Water is Nelson’s debut novel. It won the 2021 Costa Book Award for First Novel and another two awards this year. Before that, Nelson was a photographer and wrote short stories for literary magazines. In 2019, he won the Palm* Photo People’s Choice Prize.

Indeed, there is something of a photographic lens in Nelson’s subtle, poetic prose. Open Water skilfully occupies the space of looking and being looked at. Through scarce, blurry, and seemingly black-and-white images, it opens the vastness and depth of feelings and emotions of human experiences.

The plot is more of an outline than a defined entity. The protagonist, a Black photographer, falls in love with his best friend, who is also a Black artist. The novel takes us on simultaneous journeys through their relationship and through the city, on many Tube and Uber rides – to bars, restaurants, barbers, parties, and friends’ houses. The literal level is always in the background, providing a bare minimum for readers’ imagination and leaving space for meditations on masculinity, love, friendship, art, and, above all – Blackness. According to Nelson, Open Water is not about knowing but about feeling: “It’s something deep. It’s something in me. […] It doesn’t have a name, but I know what it feels like. It hurts. Sometimes, it hurts to be me. Sometimes, it hurts to be us” (Nelson, p.115).

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These themes reoccur throughout the narrative and interweave with one another, leading to many repetitions and analogous observations, almost as in a stream of consciousness, but a rather ordered and harmonious version. The prevalent concepts are those of being looked at but not seen; being vulnerable to the bone, and not; being only a Black body: “That is what you are being framed as, a container, a vessel, a body, […] and sometimes this is hard, because you know you are so much more” (Nelson, p.131). And although the protagonist struggles with all these notions, Open Water demands to be seen and, through its very style and the symbolic lack of tangibility, shows itself naked, embodying a protest against such crude conceptions.

The style of the novel is indeed unusual. Narrated from the second-person perspective, it discards the readers’ identities and instead puts them in a position of a Black man in contemporary London. Some of his experiences are universal, but some – police brutality and fear – are not. The narrative becomes all the more personal and intimate when similarities between the protagonist and Nelson himself are alluded to.

While the characters remain, paradoxically, uncharacteristic in their simple humanity, their Black identity is consistently highlighted by numerous references to Black artists: Zadie Smith – with whom the protagonist’s encounter is nearly religious, – Roy DeCarava, Donald Rodney, and Sola Olulode, amongst many others. Additionally, the whole narrative vibrates with Black music, which works as a form of expression and freedom when there are no words. There is even an official Spotify playlist made by Viking Books UK, which contains the music from Open Water. If you are still unsure whether to read the book, listen to the songs, for they begin the story.

Image Credit: “London Tube” by neiljs licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)