A stunning, shattering debut novel about two Black artists falling in and out of love
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 debut of recent years.
Open Water follows a young black man and black woman in their 20s who meet at a pub and fall in love. The man is a photographer in London, and the woman is a dancer based out of Dublin. Interestingly, the entire story is told in snippets — in tiny snapshots of life — so we’re not following the events chronologically. Additionally, it’s recounted in a second-person point of view, which lends a sense of present time to the narration, though to me, I tend to find second-person narration is a tad jarring.
The story is told from the male’s point of view and starts by focusing on their relationship — how they meet, their initial awkwardness, getting to know each other, him wanting more than friendship, and how they make the leap from friends to lovers. We never learn our characters’ names — they are only referred to as “you” and “she/her.” I found it refreshing to read a story about love told from the male’s perspective, including all of his doubts, fears, excitement, and vulnerability.
But in addition to focusing on the relationship between these two young people, the book also looks at what it’s like to be young, black, and in your 20’s in London. There’s a lot of discussion about racial profiling, the mistreatment of young black men by the police, and how criminality is always assumed merely because of skin color. The book was raw and heart-wrenching in places, as the author describes in detail how time and time again, unsuspecting black men are thrown to the ground, knee on the back, and interrogated. We really got a feeling of how overwhelmingly exhausting, frightening, and risky it can be even to leave the house when the constant threat of assumed criminality is always there. I could feel the author really captured well the main character’s weariness at being constantly marginalized.
Though the story is written in prose, it almost felt as though I were reading verse as it was so beautiful and so lyrical. Through the lush, ethereal prose, the author captures and brings forth several powerful themes such as marginalization, fear, vulnerability, being seen vs. being unseen, racism, microaggression, brutality, dating, and young love.
A wise and painful book, Open Water is a deeply moving and poignant character-driven story that speaks to the times that we live in. Additionally, the visceral style of writing and breathtaking metaphors really captured the emotion and tenderness between the couple. It’s unsettling and troubling and yet strangely beautiful at the same time — a very different kind of love story.
A huge thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy of this book.