Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.
At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.
This is such an unusual book. On the surface, it is a simple story, of two young people who fall in love. But it is so much more than that. Through the two protagonists, the author explores so much of life, and love, and society – it’s expectations, it’s cruelty, the freedoms it seems to offer that can be utterly superficial. It’s a story about being young, and hopeful, and about trying to make a life, a good life, in a world where those hopes are dashed.
I can’t fully understand the complex issues that this book raises – I have never had the experiences that are written about here, but this novel, as well as being utterly compelling and a joy to read for the beauty of the writing, goes a long way to show these experiences. It is written in second person – which does really take some getting used to – but it is so worth persevering, because the writing is so good. Not many authors could have done this so successfully, and it is a testament to the author’s talent that this is such a beautiful novel.