Caleb Azuman Nelson’s debut novel Open Water is a deeply personal exploration of the connection between two people and whether that connection can survive the pressures of the world. It is clearly, from the first page, a love story, but it is much more than that, as Nelson considers what it means to be young and black in modern Britain.
When the book opens the main character and the woman he loves are already deep in a relationship. The narrative then drops back to the first time they met – when he saw her at a party and asked for an introduction even though she was already going out with one of his best friends. She asks him to do a photography project for her and the two come together. Their relationship develops tentatively, complicated by her studies in Dublin. And the two establishing a deep, almost platonic friendship before taking things any further. It is only then that the doubts and pressures set in.
Often in the background of the book are the main character’s constant brushes with racism, from micro-aggressions to police harassment to directed violence. These weigh on him, creating an environment in which he withdraws into himself and feels he can no longer be honest, poisoning his relationship. It is a tragic reflection on the pressures and tensions inherent in being black in Britain in the Twenty-first century and the trauma that this inflicts on young people.
But the book is also a celebration of love and of a shared love of art and artists. The narrator is both a writer and a photographer and his girlfriend is a dancer. Zaide Smith particularly gets a big shout out but there are references to a range of writers and photographers. Open Water is full of references throughout to the music playing in the background or that the narrator listens to according to his mood (there is now an official Spotify playlist for those who are interested).
Daringly written in second person, Open Water is often startling and poetic. Nelson charts with unnerving honesty the fall into what seems like a perfect, mutual relationship, and then the struggle to keep that relationship alive. It is an assured debut from an incredibly talented young British author who will certainly be one to watch.