“What continues to pull you back?”
Two young, Black artists meet in a London pub one evening and instantly feel something neither can quite understand. They grow closer over time but their love struggles to overcome the brutal forces of the world working against them. Intense, intelligent, and infused with all-consuming emotion, this talented debut will leave readers awash in awe.
Open Water. By Caleb Azumah Nelson. Grove Press, Black Cat. 2021. Paperback.
How did I get the book?
I received this book as a galley from Grove Atlantic this past winter. It recently published in April.
You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!
What did I think?
Emotions are peppered throughout every page of this novel, the most paramount being desire. It is experienced by our unnamed male protagonist in a way that he doesn’t fully comprehend yet knows he must act upon. “To give it a voice is to sow a seed, knowing that somehow, someway, it will grow,” the narrator says of desire. “It is to admit and submit to something which is on the outer limits of your understanding.” The protagonist wavers between acknowledging the shame he has toward his feelings—the strangeness of having fallen for a person that’s also his best friend—and allowing things to bloom; “to feel this thing, to let it catch you unaware, to hold on to the ache,” to be brave enough to believe desire could be given a voice in his body and that it could ultimately manifest itself in love. But it’s difficult. The characters’ continuously wrestle with whether or not to allow a glance in the other’s direction, if they should sigh so deeply in a shared space while lingering a hand on a leg for a little too long.
The characters’ desire is also challenged by racism. They are continuously reminded of the way Black bodies are impeded when it comes to feeling joy, even in small doses, “forever seen and unseen, forever heard and silenced. And how strange a life it is to have to carve out small freedoms, to have to tell yourself that you can breathe.” The longer the matter is left unspoken, the more anger it provokes, arising from “unresolved grief, large and small, of others assuming that [a] beautiful Black person in [a] gorgeous Black body, was born violent and dangerous; this assumption, impossible to hide, manifesting in every word and glance and action, and every word and glance and action ingested and internalized.” But Nelson allows the characters to grapple with these messy feelings, giving them space to ache for their lack of bulletproof-ness, to not have to constantly apologize in ways that feel like suppression as they fear the police trying to find something in their pockets, to trust that they are—if only briefly—safe. “Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you did not ask for,” he writes. “Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else.” Mostly though, in their fear of destruction and of what it means to just be, the characters seek out the ability to live wholly and freely, if it’s even possible to experience in more than small snippets.
When our nameless characters do find freedom and joy, however, it’s almost always with each other. Together, they are uniquely able to be themselves, to let their bodies confess truths otherwise left unspoken. These moments do not need to be sexual but they are always intimate, often just lying in bed with one another, sober, “existing, feeling safe,” not certain if this is the embodiment of love or not but knowing they definitely don’t want to leave one another, “because to leave is to have the thing die in its current form and there is something, something in this that neither is willing to relinquish.” The characters debate internally whether or not they really understand what is happening, but know without a doubt that there is indeed something there, if only in an incomprehensible sense. “You are tumbling in the heat of a fever dream, and you surface only to plunge once more,” Nelson writes of the male character’s experience with the female protagonist, rationalizing that perhaps to trust is better than to know for sure; that if you can find someone to love you outside the sum of your traumas than perhaps that is enough.
🌟 4/5 — Very Good
Nelson uses multiple literary devices throughout the novel. Moments of repetition draw the reader in, characters consistently redefining what they mean by love or fear or darkness, reshaping the words like gum finding fresh flavor as you chew it over in your mouth. Conversely, the second-person narrative creates distance. This is enhanced when the characters reflect on memory, wondering in the present how something might feel in the future as something else in real time starts to somehow become the past; feeling eventually turning to thinking entirely, shortly after followed by wanting. But as moments actually turn to memories, they also become morphed. “Every time you remember something, the memory weakens, as you're remembering the last recollection, rather than the memory itself,” Nelson writes. “If the heart always aches in the distance between last time and next, then heartbreak comes in the unknown, the limbo, the infinity.” It’s painful, but it’s oh, so good.
The sprinkles on this tension sundae are the many opportunities Nelson takes to infuse the text with intimate details: hearing someone rearrange their body on a bed in darkness; feeling the coolness of ring bands between fingers while shakily holding hands in a state of vulnerability; smelling someone and equating it equally to breathlessness, ecstasy, sadness, home, and love. Despite the claim made in the text that language is flimsy, Nelson does everything to prove that wrong, finding ways over and over again to depict the developing connection of his characters, from the very beginning where they can only think to call what they are falling into as “something” for fear of tarnishing it, to the worry they have pursued one another at the wrong time like a gardener planting seeds in winter and expecting them to grow, before ultimately accepting the ache that is this knowing one another, one that hurts in the same satisfying way lungs do when swimming, nearly drowning, yet coming back for air. Nearly every description of love Nelson gives made me feel how one person describes our male protagonist as he is falling into this relationship: “You look like you got hit by a bus, and you dusted yourself off, and did it again for the hell of it. You look like you're wondering when the next time you can get hit by that bus is.” Yes, I absolutely am.
Beyond the book.
In addition to writing, Nelson is also a photographer, and recently discussed the relationship between the two for his UK publisher. You can also see some of his photos on his Instagram. Recently, Nelson also spoke with Megha Majumdar (author of A Burning) about the book, an event sponsored by The Free Library of Philadelphia. The two dug into how the novel tackles a story of love and race, and Nelson also read from part of it. It’s definitely a poetic experience worth an hour of your time.
See you again soon!