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Swimming in “Open Water”: A Caleb Azumah Nelson Book Review

“You have always thought if you opened your mouth in open water you would drown, but if you didn’t open your mouth you would suffocate. So here you are, drowning.” 

“Open Water” is the first novel by Caleb Azumah Nelson, a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer. In his first novel, he explores the ideas of unconditional love, mental health, what being young and black in the 21st century means, the nature of masculinity, police brutality, racism, and being seen as “other.” These are all concepts that could be incredibly difficult to put into words, but Nelson does so in a way that is painfully poetic and beautifully raw. 

This story follows two young artists, the male being a photographer and the female a dancer. We follow them as they navigate what it means to love someone in a world that seeks to marginalize them. In fact, they connect over the blatant racism they have faced growing up and how this made them not feel truly seen. The stories they tell are not unique ones; being stopped by police twice a day, questioned on a jog in the park, brutality inflicted on a young, black boy. All of these experiences are shared by our male narrator, so we see these events as he sees them. We are able to feel his anger, sadness and fear, which only helps us understand what life could be like in a black body. 

The novel uses second-person narration, allowing us to be drawn into this man’s life far easier than any other narration technique. It sets each event up so you feel as though it is happening to you, which helps you understand the message with far more intensity than you might expect. Through this young man’s eyes, you can see what it is like to live everyday as a young, black man in London. It is full of uncertainly, fear, pride, love and exploration.

This was a stroke of genius and quite frankly, bravery on Nelson’s part. Few novels really make us feel what the characters’ lives are like. We can imagine what they are feeling, yes, but we are lying to ourselves if we say we genuinely get it. Nelson’s novel demands you feel every moment of pure and unconditional love, every moment of brutal, unfiltered heartbreak, and everything in between. I applaud him for that.

You aren’t always comfortable reading “Open Water,” but that is how it should be. Sometimes, we need to be forced to be uncomfortable and hear the hard truths, or else we live our lives blind. 

I want to share a few more of my favorite quotes from “Open Water,” and I hope they persuade you to read it. 

“You have always wondered under what conditions unconditional love breaks, and you believe that betrayal might be one of them.”

“We find ourselves unseen. We find ourselves unheard. We find ourselves mislabeled. We who are loud and angry, we who are bold and brash. We who are Black. We find ourselves not saying it how it is. We find ourselves scared. We find ourselves suppressed, you said. But do not worry about has come before, or what will come; move. Do not resist the call of a drum. Do not resist the thud of a kick, the tap of a snare, the rattle of a hi-hat. Do not hold your body stiff but flow like easy water.”

“You ache. You ache all over. You are aching to be you, but you’re scared of what it means to do so.” 

I am currently a Sophomore at the University of Kentucky majoring in Marketing and Integrated Strategic Communication. I love reading, graphic design, movies and discovering new vinyl records.
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