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Book Club: Open Water, by Caleb Azumah Nelson

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Image courtesy of Waterstones

If we could define Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel with just one word, it would be poetic. At a first glance, the story probably sounds familiar – a young couple of artists fall in love at first sight, while one of them is still in a relationship with the other’s close friend. Sounds complicated, right? But again, complex love stories aren’t exactly a new theme in literature. 

What stands out in Open Water is how beautifully and richly depicted it is. Nelson narrates the story in the second person, which can be complex at first, but after a few pages, you understand his style. Both main characters – the male photographer and the female dancer – are unnamed, which opens the possibility of them being anyone and everyone. While the two of them are the novel’s key pieces, the photographer is the protagonist. Reading the book is like being inside the protagonist’s mind – intimate and emotional.

The story is set in 2017 and starts with two young Black artists being introduced to each other at Samuel’s birthday party – who happens to be her boyfriend and his close friend – in a South East London pub. The artist – not knowing that the girl he’s interested in is actually Samuel’s girlfriend – asks him to meet her. They have a quick chat, enough for him to fall in love with the dancer, but she suddenly leaves the party. From this moment on, a love story evolves from a close relationship.  

We follow them together around London, having deep conversations about life, enjoying themselves and growing closer until making their relationship official, when both decide to accept their mutual feelings and let them blossom. A current and crucial aspect of Open Water is delving into episodes of racial profiling and violence that hunt the protagonist’s mind often. “It’s one thing to be looked at, and another to be seen”, is a sentence that’s used often when he finds himself in everyday situations feeling like he doesn’t belong. The relief of seeing a familiar looking face, even if it’s a complete stranger, even if it’s just in a pub – as the occasion when he meets a Black barwoman – makes him feel somehow comfortable, makes him feel seen.

By narrating his experiences with systematic racism through his life, our main character puts the reader in his shoes with all the emotions that come with it – anger, pain, frustration, sadness, unworthiness. It’s an immersive experience as the story unravels the reality of the hardship Black people face from a different perspective. The descriptions are vivid, as if we were there with him, present in that moment. More than that, Open Water explores how these situations impact our characters lives, behaviours and connections with others.

The story unfolds as one of the photographer’s friends – also Black – was killed a few feet away from where he was ordering his food. The reason and details remain a mystery, but this violent episode followed one previously when they were approached by the police in a barbershop. Both had a drastic effect on his mental health, culminating with him diving into his spiralling thoughts and depression. Not being able to process and communicate neither his feelings nor what happened, he completely shuts the dancer – his now girlfriend – out, and their relationship fades away. 

If you made this far into the review, you’ve probably already realised that this novel is much more than a love story about two young Londoners. It’s about Black culture and their reality. It’s about injustice, vulnerability and the feeling of not belonging. But the poetic, touching and emotional love story between the artist and dancer, create an amazing scenario for Nelson’s emotional tale.

By Manuela Rio Tinto

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