Illustration by Ben Beechener
Short, tender and deeply lyrical, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson follows two Black artists living in London as they fall in love. But to describe Open Water as a simple love story seems, to me, a disservice to just how much Nelson manages to encompass in only 150 or so pages. Open Water is a story about love, yes, but it is also a story about life. It is about the multifaceted and often messy nature of humanity, of finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary, mundane and everyday.
Open Water is a novel of contrasts. In this debut novella, Nelson not only touches on the easy rhythm that comes with falling for someone who seems made for you, and you for them; he, with an unflinchingly sharp eye, also explores the power of friendship. He contrasts those quietly joyful and relatable moments of simple ease and banter with the ache of loneliness, an emotion depicted with such powerful prose it seems almost palpably painful to the reader. Within the novel, Nelson also touches on the magic of art—both the main characters are artists; one a photographer and the other a dancer—conveying the almost-indescribable feeling of comfort and being seen that comes with finding art that resonates deeply within you. Furthermore, Open Water explores the hardship and violence that comes with being Black in London, contrasting that, of course, with the complexity of falling helplessly, inevitably in love.
Written using a second person perspective that allows you to see the world of this novella through the gaze of one half of the couple, Open Water’s depiction of love and life in modern day London feels both worldly and deeply intimate and personal. Pages spent exploring what it really means and feels to fall in love go beautifully hand-in-hand with the wisdom that can be found within a barbershop and a bar.
Every page is suffused with poetic prose that forces you to slow down and truly savour every word Nelson writes. Although, at its short length, it is a novel that can easily be read in a day, its equally one you want to make last over several. There isn’t a page nor sentence wasted by Nelson and, as I read, I was hard pressed to find a page in which I wasn’t underlining something that perfectly encapsulated my own feelings about love, literature and life.
Described by Yaa Gyasi as a ‘love letter to Black art and thought’, Open Water is one of the most captivating debuts of the year. At a time when we’ve all been forced to slow down, where we’ve been left with our thoughts perhaps more than usual, when we’ve turned to literature and art to seek comfort and show us the way, Open Water feels like a hand hold. It is a novel that quietly tells us it knows how we feel, putting it into words where we might have none. Powerful, evocative, equal parts heart-warming and heart breaking, Caleb Azumah Nelson has delivered a breath-taking debut that will linger long in the hearts of its readers.