WINNER OF THE COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD
A NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION 5 UNDER 35
“Open Water is tender poetry, a love song to Black art and thought, an exploration of intimacy and vulnerability between two young artists learning to be soft with each other in a world that hardens against Black people.”—Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing
In a crowded London pub, two young people meet. 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—and both are trying to make their mark in a world 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, and over the course of a year they find their relationship tested by forces beyond their control.
Narrated with deep intimacy, Open Water is at once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity that 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, and blistering emotional intelligence, Caleb Azumah Nelson gives a profoundly sensitive portrait of romantic love in all its feverish waves and comforting beauty.
This is one of the most essential debut novels of recent years, heralding the arrival of a stellar and prodigious young talent.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
British Ghanaian novelist Caleb Azumah Nelson’s brilliant debut is a heart-wrenching tale of young love and unrelenting hope. The unnamed protagonist is a young photographer who’s just fallen for a dancer he meets at a London pub. They’re both artists, they’re both Black British, and they understand each other’s struggles. But opening your heart to love is complicated when your skin color draws violence and fear into your life. We were awestruck by the lyrical power of Nelson’s prose. Boldly written in the second person, his poetic novel bursts with incisive thoughts and observations about modern society that reverberated with us long after we set the book down. A celebration of the Black voice, a meditation on the power of art, and a hard-hitting commentary on the realities of systemic racism, Open Water is mostly a love story that’s like nothing else we’ve ever read.
Nelson's breathtaking lyrical debut employs a love story to explore systemic racism and the cultural impact of Black artists. Set primarily in London and told in second person, the novel follows a young unnamed Black photographer as he forges an artistic working relationship with a friend's ex. She, also Black and unnamed, is a university student and dancer, and the two are inseparable as they work together on a photography project to document the city's Black residents. Over time, the platonic relationship turns romantic, yet he keeps a distance from her while processing memories of racist encounters with police and witnessing those of others ("You feel anger, a hysteria... but your vision is clear, an unfrosted window, you see the woman with the policeman's knee on her back not being seen"). While seeing If Beale Street Could Talk together, he reflects on each character's "manifestation of love," but doesn't share his feelings with her. As the two bounce from party to party and restaurant to restaurant, Nelson astutely locates the importance of Black cinema, music, and literature in their lives while capturing the terror brought on by police brutality and the expectations of young Black men to bottle up their emotions. The result is consistently powerful.