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Open Water

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Viking, Penguin, 2021 

Review by Maame Blue


Reviewing a much talked-about book like Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water is a tricky thing to embark on when considering its preordained popularity.

And, naturally, I also had high expectations of its contents – a sweeping love story nestled in the contemporary London that I know. A love story that is young and hopeful and full of missteps. But I found something else in Nelson’s writing, a sort of love letter to the lives of Black boys, of young Black men caught up in a system that consistently tries to keep them from thriving.

‘This is not an overstatement. You are dying. You young boys are dying. You kill your mothers in the process.’

Don’t get me wrong: yes, there is love here, yes, there is tenderness, but there are gems of a different nature that you have to dig for. I considered what my reading of the book would have been like if I were still in my early twenties – how it might have revealed present-tense pop culture moments that would open me up, teach me a new thing or two, probably make me want to write more.

But in my thirties, it reads like a meditation – sometimes deep, sometimes very much a light scratch on the surface – on what it could have been. Yet still, Nelson left me wondering at the purposeful gaps in the narrative, paired with small moments of detail, the kind that don’t seem to matter until you read them over a few more times.

‘You wanted to put a ball through a hoop, and repeat. You didn’t want to have to think about what it meant to wander the unending acres of the grounds, the series of coincidences and conditions which confirmed your place there, loud in the silence.’

Open Water feels like someone whispering something important in my ear that I didn’t quite catch, so I have to fill in the gaps with my own assumptions. And perhaps that was Nelson’s plan all along: to touch on many subjects only with fingertips, so you get a sense, but not the whole, of what it is to be young, gifted and Black in London, or in any other major city.

When Nelson wants the reader to pay attention, you can’t help but keep your eyes and ears open.

‘They don’t see you. They see someone, but that person is not you. They would like to see what is in your bag. Your possessions are scattered across the ground in front of you. They say they are just doing their jobs. They say you are free to go now.’

There are difficult moments in this book that latch onto the trauma of being Black in white society, of always being othered, and that speak of the constraints these things bring when it comes to speaking freely – of the glimmering of freedom itself. But there are beautiful moments, too, centred in the art of creation, in interactions emboldened by love, and the hopefulness that comes with a London summer – short-lived but always effervescent.

Open Water felt like a brief wade through these things, or perhaps only a toe dip that left me wanting to immerse myself completely, if only there was more open water to swim in.