Open Water, the debut novel by Caleb Azumah Nelson, begins when a barber notices the unnamed protagonist exchanging gazes in the mirror with a woman getting her hair cut. The barber says: “You two are in something. I don’t know what it is, but you guys are in something. Some people call it a relationship, some call it friendship, some call it love, but you two, you two are in something.”
It is this “something” between the protagonist and the woman he meets which propels the question of what it means to be yourself when you’re Black, British, and in love.
Narrated in the second person, the “you” of the novel embodies a self that is at once a detached observer and a self-reflexive voice shaping the narrator’s own story. He says in the opening: “You came here to speak of what it means to love your best friend: Ask if flexing is being able to say the most in the fewest number of words, is there a greater flex than love? Nowhere to hide, nowhere to go. A direct gaze.”
The gaze—that fleeting instant of exchange—weaves a significant undercurrent of belonging and alienation in the novel. The twenty-something protagonist is a photographer who reminds us that “There is a difference between being looked at and being seen.”
Open Water is sophisticated and unapologetic in its telling of a relationship between a Black man and a Black woman who come to see each other in rare, uninhibited intimacy interrupted by the constant, ambient violence of microaggressions and police brutality.
Nelson’s voice is wholly contemporary and original, shifting between essayistic modes that weave Saidiya Hartman, Teju Cole, and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight into the plot of the novel, adding to the chorus the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Kendrick Lamar to create a thunderous interdisciplinary lineage of uncompromising Black joy.
The rhythms of Black music find their echo in Nelson’s poetic elegance too. In one such instance, the narrator says, “It’s easy to stay furled up where you can’t live, like folding a book in half on its spine to fit into pockets.” A variation of this image recurs when the narrator is momentarily brought to his knees by his arrhythmia: “By the time you were at the foot of the stairs, you were folded over. A book creased on its spine.” Through motif and repetition, Nelson creates a resonant aural narrative that is by turns lively and heartbreaking.
After being profiled by the police and witnessing violence, the narrator claims that he is more than the sum of his traumas. Open Water is ultimately a novel that shows us how to move beyond a life of survival into a life that is lived—where one can be seen for who they are, even and especially when the personal is the political. It is a rare novel: a slow burner that is also a page-turner, reminding us that the erotic has always been about a richness of life.
By Caleb Azumah Nelson
Grove Press, Black Cat
Published April 13, 2021