AUGUST 21, 2021
YOU’VE HEARD THIS story before — two friends fall in love with each other. In the beginning, there is some hesitation, but when love takes two tender hearts hostage, it is almost impossible to run from it. Caleb Azumah Nelson certainly delivers these goods in Open Water, but he encases his core story in a more significant tale of violence and crippling racial trauma.
In under 200 pages, Nelson places us in London and in the middle of a slow-dance romance between two Black British artists — a photographer and a dancer. But the reader feels like a part of the dance too, as if they are being escorted to the floor — a hand cupped over their shoulder blade, and the other in a firm clasp. They dip and down we go with them; they turn round and round, and the dizziness hits us too. This is because the novel is written in the second person — the reader is not a distant observer but a character playing along. The experience is as imaginative as it is engaging.
For people who think this point of view can be alienating, it can be. The main voice in Open Water is of a young Black man who is fragmented and deeply afflicted by the world he lives in, one where he finds himself unseen, unheard, mislabeled, scared, and suppressed. This world is not implied; Nelson offers an unflinching depiction and examination of racial profiling and fatal police shootings of Black men throughout:
He had an index finger gripping the trigger, like he was holding onto a lifeline. He looked scared, behind the crumpled forehead, the hard eyes, he looked scared […] because instead of questioning himself, of interrogating his beliefs, of not filling in the gaps, he continues to look at you as a danger. You fit the profile. You fit the description. You don’t fit in the box but he has squeezed you in.
What makes Open Water more than a reflection of what it means to be a Black man in the United Kingdom is the intimate look into what living in a world like that does to the Black man — the unending vigilance, constant trepidation, and inevitable consequence of an identity that appears to disintegrate by the day.
Nelson best demonstrates the afflicted self, and his command of details, in his illustration of masculinity and vulnerability. When the photographer and dancer fall in love, we expect a relief, a level of calmness that only love can afford. Their desires aren’t left out; a playful push and pull of intense affection runs heavily through the text. But if you’ve lived your whole life hiding in your own darkness after witnessing and mourning the murders of Black men and suppressing your fear, it is arduous when love shows up. The dancer pleads for his vulnerability, insists that he returns “home,” a word the writer uses synonymously with freedom. But it is nearly impossible to accept and hold on to love with the anxiety that floods the photographer’s life. That is not a surprising phenomenon, of course — to have an individual utterly trapped by the horror of what is and could be is to have an individual with little to no room for anything else, including love. The experience is visceral, and Nelson evokes a shock of recognition when he reveals the photographer’s pain and frustration:
She reaches for you and you step back. You feel dirty with your heaviness and fear and you don’t want to stain her. […] She walks away from you. You do not chase her. You gaze in the mirror and you see that you are not a coward but you have done a cowardly thing and that you’re not malicious but you have hurt her and you’re not embarrassment but you are ashamed.
It is both sad and maddening to see a broken man come so close to feeling the tremendous beauty and joy that is love, and yet, for reasons beyond his control, he is stuck in a state of delusion that consumes him and puts him at risk of losing the very thing he’s longed for.
One of the book’s most enthralling qualities is the way Nelson illuminates Black culture, ranging from films like Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood to music by Kendrick Lamar, Q-Tip, and Phife. He also quotes writers like Zadie Smith, Saidiya Hartman, and James Baldwin. By incorporating not only the talent of Black artists but also the significance of their activism, Nelson positions Open Water as a work that joins the movement to represent and preserve Black art.
Art makes it possible for the characters to “carve out small freedoms.” Music provides respite, a release from suffocation. A Black man is on his knees wailing like a newborn when Solange’s “Junie” begins to play. The music is forceful and raises something within him. He gathers his aching body to the rhythm of R&B as the singer urges, “Let’s go to home […] come on along.” If art is inherently a kind of protest, it is evident in this scene as we see a Black man in great sorrow and agitation rise and lift his hands to dance. It is an expression of pure joy, but it is also a bypass, a sweet diversion from the path of trauma.
While these snippets of creative expression are memorable and enrich the text overall, the references may be just a little much for a novel this size. I wondered at times if a scene would be more powerful without weaving in a work of art. After a while, the repetitive effect disrupted the flow, and some references faded as details that could be easily skimmed over. For example, Nelson writes about the photographer’s friend who’s a poet. One of her poems, “Before Leaving,” is a piece about things unsaid, which he connects to the way that language often fails the photographer. Only two paragraphs later, he introduces a play, “The Brothers Size.” It is about unconditional love and how such a commitment can fail. Nelson again connects the art to the photographer’s own life. Though at times effective, the attempt to string together so many art forms within the plot line can be overwhelming.
Open Water is an open journal of what is all too familiar, as if a close friend were peeling off their layers to show what lies underneath. You can expect to be surprised by what you’ll find, not because you’re unaware that they’re hurting but because you didn’t realize the extent and rippling effects of their pain. For readers who know these scars intimately, Nelson offers some truths: you don’t have to be a sum of your traumas. Multiple truths exist. There is no solace in the shade. Do not hold your body stiff, but flow like easy water. All that matters is that you’re here.