In this slow and steady tale of Black love, we experience the world through the eyes of a young Londoner from the instant he meets a captivating university-going woman and as they go on to fall head over heels for one another. While their love is strong enough to withstand the slights of her jealous ex-lover and taboos around stealing another brother’s girl, it buckles under the excruciating pressure occasioned by being a Black man in a white supremacist world that wants you dead.

Don’t let generic phrases like Black love fool you: this is also a novel about photography, mental health, pain, joy, music, vulnerability, and ultimately salvation. From Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, stories of Black love have repeatedly found incomparable success all over the world, and there is a reason for it. An old saying teaches us that Black love is self-love, but Nelson’s novel reminds everyone that if Black love is truly self-love, then self-love must also be Black love.

People often like to say that love sees no colour; that love is blind. While that is true, it is also true that love is about seeing. In Open Water, it is about the sacred safe space Black love creates where the Black woman sees beneath the Black man’s hurt and brings out the “the smile of king” in a world where “regicide is rife.”  

An old saying teaches us that Black love is self-love, but Nelson’s novel reminds everyone that if Black love is truly self-love, then self-love must also be Black love.

Our unnamed protagonist is a photographer, and it is no coincidence that Open Water is told in a Calvino-esque, immersive second-person narrative that functions like a type of tunnel vision trained on the subject at hand. As the protagonist is finally reconciled to his estranged love interest who has since picked up photography, the motif of seeing is ultimately turned on the Black man himself who is rarely seen “as [he] is meant to be seen.” Nelson tells Bad Form that when he began writing, he “wanted to write a book that read like an album … from which you could pick up individual bits, like you listen to individual songs.”

But while this novel is an ethereal snapshot that meditates on the multimedial nature of Black art, it is also unafraid to play with traditional literary conventions. Even in the so-called postmodernist era, second-person novels remain rare. If Calvino uses the second person to situate you, the reader, firmly in the fantastical, Nelson’s uses it to situate you, the reader, right in the reality of Black British manhood, to situate you right in front of the world’s lens.

Boasting languorous sentences that reconcile once paradoxical images with masterful ease, it is also no overstatement to say that Open Water is a decidedly dream-like read. At times it is too impressionistic, and the narrative’s forward motion is occasionally weighed down with introspection. But after a tragic summer of Black men not breathing, the recurring image of this love’s painful, yet peaceful, open waters in which the pair “surface … only to plunge once more” becomes increasingly powerful with every appearance. 

There is no nonsense about superhumanly-strong Black anything: the Black man is allowed to be vulnerable, to cry, and finally to break.

While it is wrong to reduce this standalone work of art into a novel about this or about that, it truly makes incredibly unique contributions to understandings of Black masculinity, Black love, and the space between the two. There is no nonsense about superhumanly-strong Black anything: the Black man is allowed to be vulnerable, to cry, and finally to break. And he does not have to do it alone because she is one who can sympathise, who can see him, and who can hold the whole sweep of him, gently. 

Open Water is, also, a testament to the beauty of Black womanhood in a world where their desirability is always proportional to the degree of darkness in their skin. In the US, around 1 in 3 college-educated Black women have not, are not, and will never marry. Equally, 1 in 3 Black men have been, are, or will be incarcerated.

Despite its countless victims like Stephen Lawrence and those of the New Cross Massacre, Britain loves to profess itself innocent of white suprmacy and police brutality, quickly pointing an accusing finger at its wayward offspring across the pond. Open Water makes it clear that the difference, if any, lies solely in gun legislation. Rejecting the media’s fetishisation of beaten Black bodies, it also makes clear that “this moment is older than all of us”: the fact “that [our] bodies are not [our] own” is wholly historical. 

This title is destined to become a classic about the essential relationship between Black masculinity and Black love. Open Water is a story of love — for Black men, for Black women, for Black selves, for Black life, for Black art, for Black community, and for Black love — that successfully strikes a delicate balance between the political and the reassuring. Much like her as she holds him and whispers it softly, this novel too says “it’s OK, you are safe here.”

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

CALEB AZUMAH NELSON is a 25-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His writing has been published in Litro. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People’s Choice prize. OPEN WATER is his first novel.

OPEN WATER: An ethereal meditation on Black love and artOpen Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Published by Viking on 4 Feb 2021
Genres: Romance, Black British, Lad lit, Urban, Coming-of-age, Debut, Existentialism, Lyric
Pages: 145
Format: Hardcover
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four-half-stars

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.