By Gurnish Kaur
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.
Caleb Azumah Nelson, Open Water
I would like to shine a light on an upcoming author, though one who has been so successful to date that “upcoming” feels like a distant past – Caleb Azumah Nelson. The novel Open Water by the debut novelist was published in February 2021, for which Caleb won the 2021 Costa First Novel Award. Open Water is a beautifully crafted novel exploring themes of grief, love, masculinity and focuses on the multifaceted Black experience.
Open Water is very much a London novel. From the late-night tube rides, the busy streets of Oxford Circus and the sound of pub chatter falling into the streets of Shoreditch. As a South-East Londoner and a reader, Nelson’s descriptions felt vivid, and lively like the streets of London. But Nelson does not forget to display the narrow London streets that confine and govern the Black body. Through unrelenting racial profiling, stop and searches, police brutality and racial oppression, London is in control.
The central plot focuses on an unnamed protagonist, who is a photographer, and a young female dancer who he meets in a pub in London amongst friends. However, it soon comes to the photographer’s understanding that the woman he admires is romantically connected to his close friend, Samuel. After the encounter, the attraction remains and their paths meet, they connect and form their relationship. But they are yet to face the challenges the world will throw at them as a couple.
As the novel progresses, Nelson opens the battle of tenderness and strength that the protagonist struggles to express within his masculinity. Nelson asks the question, what does it mean to be vulnerable when you are everyone else’s strength?
This is not a classic romance novel. This is a story of two souls connecting beyond the surface everyone else sees. Open Water gives voice to those that have been overlooked or disregarded. The voice of this story belongs to a Black man who is fragmented because of the world he lives in; a world of racial profiling and police brutality.
Nelson expresses this through the feeling of art in Open Water. He wraps the novel in music, photography and dance to express feelings of loss and celebration. With Open Water, Nelson celebrates Black artists by lacing the chapters with writers like Zadie Smith and James Baldwin to films and music by Kendrick Lamar and Phife. The acknowledgement of other Black artists in Open Water is not only referenced by the characters naturally, but this was one of my favourite qualities of the novel. Open Water is a debut novel but it does not fall short of beautiful writing, raw reality and a novel that should become a modern classic.
I have not read a novel in the second person in a very long time, but the way Nelson has cultivated each sentence and word with so much soul and depth makes you feel as though you are amongst the characters. Perhaps this is why he chose to use the second person, to make the reader feel connected and not just a distant observer. You move with them when they dance, you sit with them when they drink a cup of tea, and you listen when the other speaks.
I found myself constantly holding a pencil in my hand while reading this novel. In 176 pages I found myself wanting to underline every other line. Each piece of dialogue, and each description felt perfectly pieced together. A quote from Open Water that I think fits perfectly with the book industry is the following:
“I love her writing,’ her mother says.
‘She’s my favourite writer. NW is the book I return to most.’
Perhaps that is how we should frame this question forever; rather than asking what is your favourite work, let’s ask, what continues to pull you back?”
This particular quote showed me a new outlook on reading and made me reflect on the art I consume. What stays with me and what do I return to and why? I think we should all be asking that question to understand ourselves and others better.
Overall, this modern short read has been crafted with great poetic sentences written from the soul. While reading this novel, I felt an immense connection to the characters' stories and lives. Nelson has a beautiful mind for storytelling, and I am excited about what this upcoming author has planned.