The Book Shelf

A Review: Open Water

Leah gives us this month's book review. The beautiful debut novel that tells a tale of black love from Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water.

There’s a reason the sleeve of Open Water is plastered with glowing reviews from our favourite authors (Yaa Gyasi, Candice Carty-Williams, Bolu Babalola to name a few). As the old saying goes real recognise real and this book is the realest! With Open Water Caleb Azumah Nelson has joined a growing (but exclusive) club of Black British authors that are blowing us away with their debut novels.

Set a handful of years before the word pandemic was anywhere near daily discourse, Open Water tells the heartfelt story of two young Londoners and traces the ebbs, the flows, the twists and the turns of their relationship. From the delightfully mundane (an endless stream of Ubers and takeaways) to the notoriously challenging dynamics of long distance love. Coincidentally, given both the author and the protagonist’s eye for photography Nelson zooms in to the finer details of relationships and with every zoom the picture gains clarity and sharpness.

What really makes Open Water stand out is the lyricism used to express the beauty, pain and confusion of young love. I have never read a book quite like it. The pages are sprinkled with refrains that offer a musical quality to the novel. Like the catchiest chorus of a timeless slow jam, key phrases and pearls of wisdom are at times repeated throughout a chapter. Initially I had to do a double take to make sure I wasn’t drifting off, after all at times Open Water is so lyrical it lulls you in to a state of relaxation like a soothing lullaby. Eventually I realised these refrains are a very much intentional, for me mimicking the unrelenting nature of over thinking especially in the early days of a relationship where every touch, every word and every glance leads to painstaking dissection.

The London that Nelson presents is sign posted by the sexy, sweaty atmosphere of Carnival Monday, the omnipresence of Niketown, the reliably delicious Shake Shack and the safe haven of the barbershop.

This book is a gorgeous account of young black love but it is also an ode to the city that nearly nine million people call home, or certainly the city we called home before 2020 hit: London. Pre-pandemic London is captured perfectly and not in the whitewashed middle class way that Notting Hill or Bridget Jones’ Diary presented it back in the day. The London that Nelson presents is sign posted by the sexy, sweaty atmosphere of Carnival Monday, the omnipresence of Niketown, the reliably delicious Shake Shack and the safe haven of the barbershop. But it is not all rosy, Nelson doesn’t ignore the tension between police and young black men and sadder still the life threatening tension within our own community. Yet he does it in a way that is humanising and real, offering an introspective take on the lasting effects of said tension. In fact I could borrow a line from page 88 of Open Water here to express what Nelson does perfectly:’it’s one thing to be looked at, and another to be seen.’ Nelson does not offer critique or empty solutions, instead he shows the hurt felt by communities, mothers, friends and even distant acquaintances when lives are lost.

It is such a treat to get stuck in to because it is so proudly and boldly black without a single apology or over explanation. If you’re not familiar with the work of Zadie Smith, or you cannot remember how you felt the first time you heard Fix Up Look Sharp or saw the 21 Seconds video then that is frankly not Nelson’s issue. He wastes no time watering down the cultural references that punctuate each page, instead he throws more references at you, be it musicians, photographers or lyrics in the hope that something will resonate.

It’s impossible to put this book down and not feel a little bit ‘seen’ and there’s frankly no better feeling than when you can relate whole heartedly to the what the protagonists are going through. For that reason I am awarding Open Water 4 worms out of 5. Have a read if you fancy reminding yourself of the freedom and joy of pre-pandemic life!

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