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Caleb Azumah Nelson Open Water

Open Water

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Our May goop Book Club pick is Caleb Azumah Nelson’s lyrical debut novel. Open Water explores the depths of romantic love through a relationship between two best friends and young Black artists who meet in a London pub. You will fall for them quickly.

Read the first chapter below—the chapters are short and stunning, and the whole book clocks in at a remarkable 160 pages. You can join our book club Facebook group or Zoom chat to lament over how quickly it goes. Save the date—Thursday, May 27, 9:30 a.m. PT—when we’ll be speaking with the author live on YouTube. And if you’re intrigued by the song references in this excerpt, listen to the Open Water playlist on Spotify.

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From Open Water

The first night you met, a night you both negate as too brief an encounter, you pull your friend Samuel to the side. There’s a bunch of you in the basement of this south-east London pub. A birthday celebration. Most on their way to drunk, or jolly, depending on which they’d prefer.

‘What’s up?’

‘I don’t normally do this.’

‘Usually means this is something you’ve done before.’

‘No, promise. Pinky promise,’ you say. ‘But I need you to introduce me to your friend.’

You’d like to say that in this moment, the older gentleman spinning records had faded something fast, something like Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’, into something equally so. You’d like to say it was the Isley Brothers, ‘Fight the Power’, playing when you expressed a desire you did not wholly understand, but knew you must act upon. You’d like to say, behind you, the dance floor heaved and the young moved like it was the eighties, where to move in this way was but one of a few freedoms afforded to those who came before. And since you’re remembering this, the liberty is yours. But you did promise to be honest. The reality was you were so taken aback by the presence of this woman that you first reached to shake her hand, before opening up for the usual wide embrace, the result an awkward flapping of your arms.

‘Hi,’ you say.

‘Hello.’

She smiles a little. You don’t know what to say. You want to fill the gap but nothing comes. You stand, watching each other, in a silence that does not feel uncomfortable. You imagine the look on her face is mirroring yours, one of curiosity.

‘You’re both artists,’ Samuel says, a helpful interruption. ‘She’s a very talented dancer.’ The woman shakes her head.

‘And you?’ she says. ‘What do you do?’

‘He’s a photographer.’

‘A photographer?’ the woman repeats.

‘I take pictures, sometimes.’

‘Sounds like you’re a photographer.’

‘Sometimes, sometimes.’

‘Coy.’ Shy, you think. You leap across the conversation and watch as she darts after you. A red light leans across her face, and you catch a glimpse of something, something like kindness in her open features, her eyes watching your hands talk. It’s a familiar tongue you note, definitely south of the river. Definitely somewhere you’d be more likely to call home. In this way there are things which you both know and speak with your very being, but here go unsaid.

‘Do you want a drink? Can I get you a drink?’ You turn, noticing Samuel for the first time since the conversation started. He’s receded, slumped a little; he’s smiling, but his body betrays he’s feeling shut out. Feeling the sting of guilt, you try to welcome him back in.

‘Do you guys want drinks?’

The woman’s face splits open with genuine, kind amusement and, as it does so, there’s a hand on your elbow. You’re being pulled away; you’re needed. The dance floor has cleared a little and there is a silence filled with all that is yet to come. There’s cake and candles and an attempted harmony during ‘Happy Birthday’. You slide your camera from where it swings on your shoulder, training your lens on the birthday girl, Nina, as she makes a wish, the solitary candle on her cake like a tiny sunshine. When the crowd begins to disperse, you are tugged in every direction. As the solo cameraman, it is your duty to document.

The music starts up once more. People stand in small bunches, pausing as you focus in on kind faces looming in the darkness. The older gentleman spinning records continues on at pace. Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’ fits.

Emerging from the crowd, you stand at the bar and crane your long neck in several directions. It is here, when you seek the woman once more, on the night in question, a night you both negate as too brief an encounter, you realize she is gone.


Excerpted from Open Water © 2021 by Caleb Azumah Nelson. Reprinted courtesy of Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.


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