Book Review Time: Open Water

Amid the smooth rhythms of hip-hop, soul, and R&B, a love story emerges. Two artists (a photographer and a dancer) meet. Their connection is immediate. Their movements are in tempo. Their conversation flows to a place beyond words. But what’s a love story without conflict? In the case of the couple depicted in Open Water, the conflicts are many. Their timing is just a tad off, as she happens to already be in a relationship. However, once that issue is resolved, others quickly reveal themselves. There is a physical distance to contend with which gives cause for hesitancy. As a consequence, their relationship proceeds with caution. Yet there is always a strong sense of ambiguity. These intimate moments when the couple reaches the border into new territory, and they stop just shy of the crossing. Blurred lines lead to misunderstandings, and the two struggle to find sure footing. It doesn’t help that they must negotiate rocky terrain in the form of institutionalized racism. There are no misunderstandings about the society in which they live. A society that assigns threat, aggression, and criminality based solely on skin color. And if a young man finds himself in the wrong place and the wrong time the results can be fatal. The systemization of racism is maddening not only in its absolute absurdity, but also in its ironclad hold on society. For the narrator, and main character, of this provocative love story, the racism he and other black men in his London community face, begins to take a toll. Unsurprisingly, these encounters bring about mental health issues and further threaten his blossoming, yet fragile, relationship.

It’s a sign of true talent when a writer can deliver such an impactful work at a mere 166 pages. When I reached the end of Open Water, the emotions ran deeply. I have no reservations in revealing that I did shed a few tears. Just a natural response to incredible writing. Caleb Azumah Nelson presents the narration in the second-person which struck me as a unique and daring approach. The narrator is, in essence, talking to himself. It’s the language of an individual working through what it means to love, what it means to grasp beauty, when surrounded by darkness and destruction. It’s riveting in a way that is difficult to encapsulate.

Nelson’s appreciation for Black culture and artistry is also on display in this novel. The narrator highlights the work of literary giants such as Zadie Smith and James Baldwin. He credits Black cinema, films like Moonlight and Boyz N’ The Hood, for proving that there are spaces in which he is truly “seen.” And of course, there’s the music. Even when there is no mention of music, you still hear it. The soundtrack of the tragic pain and the resilient pleasure of the Black experience.

A magnificent debut novel. Open Water.


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