• Bochra Boudarka

Review: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson's magnificent debut novel is nothing short of a triumph. A book that reminded me that words are there to make you feel and for that I am grateful. Though it is less than 150 pages long, it took me a long time to read it. I was thoroughly absorbed in the beautifully visceral prose and found myself savouring my time reading, rereading, not letting a single sentence pass me by. The choice to write this as both a second person narration and in the present tense was unusual but sealed the bond between character and reader.

Two young people meet in a pub in South East London, and find a comforting similarity in their lives. Both won scholarships to elite private schools, where they struggled to belong, “I never felt unwelcome, but there was always something I didn’t feel privy to”. Both are now artists, he a photographer and she a dancer, trying to make their mark in sprawling London. We follow their friendship that blossoms from shared interests and experiences, and the hesitancy that comes with the transformation into an intense and intimate relationship. “To give it a voice is to sow a seed, knowing that somehow, someway, it will grow. It is to admit and submit to something which is on the outer limits of your understanding.”

It is not just their art that drew them together. From their first meeting, there was an electric undercurrent to their encounters, and the tension carried on for a long time. They dance around each other, talk about music, its sounds and silences. Their discussions surround paintings, books, words, anything but their growing affection. They hold onto that label of the word friend, laughing off the enquiries of those around them. The tentativeness, the tension, the intimacy were so palpable, so expertly written, I was in awe. The narrator worded his hesitancy perfectly; “sometimes it is easier to hide in your own darkness than to emerge, naked and vulnerable, blinking in your own light.”

Vulnerability is a running theme in this book. The simultaneous safety and exposure that comes with being in love and being seen by someone is explored throughout. The line “It’s one thing to be looked at and another to be seen” is repeated frequently. At first it is framed in a positive light, in wonderment as the narrator experiences being loved and known, but as the novel progresses, the context shifts. It becomes the mantra of a man tired of being looked at and people seeing nothing of him beyond another Black body.

It is not enough to call Open Water a love story. It is an exploration of masculinity, identity, what it is to be a young and black in London — where you are only seen as a Black body — and the exhausting, perpetual trauma of racism. All these themes are perfectly woven into this short novel with expertise and nuance.

Sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong… that to be you is to be unseen and unheard… a Black body, and not much else.

Throughout the novel, artists, musicians and writers are referenced, their work having moved the protagonist. They informed his own art and his perspectives on life. This showcase of black creativity made me want to reread Baldwin and finally reach for NW by Zadie Smith, but did, at times, make me feel disorientated.

A beautiful and unforgettable novel, one that I will recommend at every turn. I look forward to devouring anything that Caleb Azumah Nelson writes.

By Bochra Boudarka