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OPEN WATER


BY CALEB AZUMAH NELSON





OKHA BOOK REVIEW BY THEOPHINA GABRIEL


Let’s be real, when it comes to Black British stories about love the shelves have been decisively out of stock for time. I’d definitely say we’re finally seeing the opening of a proper aisle with titles like Love in Colour, Queenie and Open Water being prominently positioned right at the front. My ideal labels for love fiction would read: trauma free, 0% white-centric, down-to-earth-grown, and dripping with sensory imagery. When I picked up Open Water and saw its size, I wondered how it would manage this tall order given its short length, but after recently being blown away by Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at The Bone I knew better than to judge a book by its size.


I was instantly met with a second person narrative that wrapped around the story like cellophane. No matter how hard I tried to bite into the plot, this writing style put up an invisible barrier with movie-like narration that felt overbearing. I can’t stand when there’s too much narration in films, sometimes you don’t want to be told, sometimes you just want to watch the scenes unfold. Despite some gorgeous imagery-filled lines, it was hard not to feel preached at. As I read, I hoped that the couple would provide a welcome distraction but was gutted when we were given only their outlines; they remain nameless and sparingly described throughout the novel. The plot begins in a barbershop, with the woman love interest having a haircut and a spark being shared between her and her love interest who is the narrator and main protagonist. The story then tracks them back to the point where they first met, at a birthday party, and the sticky ordeal of falling in love while the woman is transitioning from a relationship with a friend that both she and her love interest share.

My 0% trauma wish was very much denied. I do have an inbuilt tolerance for it in love stories; I understand the nuances contained with our experience. However, while reading Open Water I found more mentions of Black death, bodies, police brutality and invisibility from within the white gaze than love, and I started to get frustrated. I went back to count just how many times Black bodies/death was mentioned vs love, and truly Black love got ratioed in this plotline by Black trauma 2:1.





It was immense with entire chapters consecutively dedicated to death and brutality – all of it focusing on Black masculinity. I found the images beautifully described which made me uncomfortable; one specific image about a Black boys’ death being compared to an elegant bird dead on concrete particularly disturbed me. It felt androcentric – with women figures mostly described through the lens of suffering matriarchs by virtue of proximity to Black men, including the main love interest (the line ‘she will always cry for you’ nearly made me want to dash the book).

I wanted to enjoy Open Water so much. I hoped it would provide an oasis of rich Black love in a desert of stories which don’t usually depict the Black people printed on its jacket. Instead, it gave opaque descriptions of an intimate couple and a narrative style that shallowed me out from truly experiencing the closeness of their world. The touching moments of intimacy they shared were not enough to buoy a weighty trauma-focused plotline and the beauty of their connection ultimately couldn’t help but sink under the undeniable androcentrism found within the novel’s main character.