The unnamed protagonist of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, a young black photographer, often reflects on his artistic process: he is principally trying to compose images that “portray a rhythm”.
The central plot of Open Water, set in 2017-18, may at first glance seem familiar: two young people (in this instance, a female dancer and a male photographer) fall in love when perhaps they shouldn’t (the dancer has “romantic history” with a close friend of the photographer). After a brief period of will they/won’t they, the couple can no longer resist the attraction they feel for one another. Challenges soon test their newly formed relationship.
It is Azumah Nelson’s expressive style that most startlingly reanimates this formula. His presentation of the narrative in sensual but precisely paced sentences with elegant refrains and motifs imbues Open Water with a rhythm of its own. Azumah Nelson’s descriptions of his lovers’ physicality provide the clearest examples of his supple prose. At the beginning of their relationship, the photographer and dancer are tentative in their interactions with one another – and yet these moments are freighted with possibility.
The arm which isn’t trapped between her body and yours stretches towards her, and she pulls it across her body like a blanket, curling in tight. With her foot, she traces a line across your own, finally settling her lower limb between your calves. She slides down her bed a little, so she can tuck herself in the space between your chest and your chin, the mane of soft curls ticklish against your neck … The hand holding your arm reaches for your own, spreading your digits between hers.
While an elegance of style is a hallmark of Azumah Nelson’s storytelling, there is bold risk-taking in his choices too: he writes in the second person, using its immediacy and potency to create an emotional intensity that replicates the emotional intensity with which the protagonist experiences his bond with the dancer and his wider world. The fissures that emerge in their relationship partly arise because he struggles to communicate the depth of his suffering and feelings of loss prompted by the racialised inequities of his south-east London neighbourhood.
In its interweaving of the romantic arc with meditations on blackness and black masculinity, this affecting novel makes us again consider the personal through a political lens; systematic racism necessarily politicises the everyday experiences of black people. The police profiling that the photographer endures as a young black man moving through the city is recounted with painful emphasis on the effects of feeling constantly observed. Azumah Nelson emotively demonstrates how these pressures influence black men’s psychic lives and their forging of connections with others.
Running alongside is a glorious celebration of the exuberance of blackness. The photographer stresses that he and his community are “more than the sum of [their] traumas”. As the protagonist explores the influences underpinning his own work, and in tender dialogue between the lovers, Azumah Nelson namechecks black artistry of all kinds, often drawing attention to its immersive power and transcendental effect. This is beautifully shown in a vignette early on in the novel. During a tube journey, when speaking to the dancer about the American rapper Isaiah Rashad, the photographer is circumspect in expressing the impact this music had on him.
You don’t tell her that the album had soundtracked your previous summer. You don’t tell her that you had repeated the song ‘Brenda’, an ode to the artist’s grandma, so much that you knew when the bassline would begin to slide under the strum of guitar chords, when the trumpet would riff and reverb, when there was a break, a slight pause where the music fell loose …You don’t tell her that it was there, in the slight pauses, that you were able to breathe, not even realising you were holding in air, but you were.
Dizzee Rascal, Kendrick Lamar, the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the film-maker Barry Jenkins are also referenced as Azumah Nelson suffuses the narrative with the achievements of black creativity. There is a rather lovely Zadie Smith cameo, too: the photographer goes to hear the author read and is inspired by her banter as he nervously waits for her to sign his copy of NW.
Given its slim size, the novel sometimes seems slightly crowded – not just with these enthusiastic references to black artists, but in other ways too. Alongside the main narrative, other topics fleetingly referred to include the difficulties of being a black person in a private school, curling at the Winter Olympics, the Notting Hill Carnival, basketball, Kierkegaard, the loss of grandparents … This engaging breadth of interest might make us wish the book, at 176 pages, were a little longer to accommodate its investigative spirit. However, this range and the desire to record the variety of a particular black perspective demonstrate a key feature of Azumah Nelson’s work: his exciting ambition.
• Open Water is published by Viking (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.