Book Reviews / Books

Open Water Book Review

09.07.21
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

I recently invited writer and author, Jyoti Patel, onto my podcast, to discuss her eight Desert Island Books. Of the books she chose, the one that appealed to me most was open Water by British-Ghanaian writer, Caleb Azumah Nelson. Jyoti said of Nelson’s debut novel – ‘It examines masculinity, vulnerability, love, racism, and police brutality with astonishing intimacy against a backdrop of great art, music, and literature.’ – and so the day after recording my podcast, I bought myself a copy from Gertrude & Alice, eager to see if it lived up to its hype.

Open Water Book Review

And live up to its praise it did. At just shy of 150 pages, I read Open Water in a single sitting, and didn’t want it to end. A love story at its core, Nelson’s novel is unbelievably beautifully written, and so poetic and prose-like in places, that there were several passages I went back to re-read.  

Exquisitely crafted, despite Open Water’s relatively short length, it’s one of the most impactful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time; and one that has stayed with me long beyond the final page. A story about two unnamed black Londoners – a photographer and a dancer – Open Water is written from a 2nd person perspective and explores everything from identity, to what it is to be a young and black in London, to the nature of masculinity, to the parameters of privilege. At first friends, their relationship soon develops into something more, and what follow is a poignant and powerful depiction of the open waters of an emotionally intense and intimate relationship as the pair become lovers.

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Lyrical, intimate, meditative, and brooding, Nelson’s command of language and storytelling skills are second-to-none, and I found it absolutely staggering that a debut author of his age has such an illuminating grasp of prose. A novel that I think absolutely everyone should read, and undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year, here’s just one of the many tender and bruising passages contained within the story:

“You can hear fear. You can hear bodies being crumpled. A knee on a crooked back, a book folded in on a crooked spine. We haven’t done anything, we haven’t done anything, you hear Daniel say. They do not listen. You are heavy and scared. They pat you down and rifle through pockets and ask what it is you’re hiding. You want to say the ache, but you don’t think they would understand. Not when they are complicit. This goes on until they grow tired, they grow bored, they lose their focus, there is a call somewhere else. Just doing our jobs, they say. You’re free to go now, they say.

Are we ever?”

Open Water Summary

Two young people meet at a pub in South-East London. 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 – trying to make their mark in a city 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.

Buy Open Water from Bookshop.org, Book Depository, Waterstones, Amazon or Amazon AU.

Further reading

I loved this piece on The New York Times: For Caleb Azumah Nelson, There’s Freedom in Feeling Seen.

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Caleb Azumah Nelson author bio

Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London. His writing has been published in Litro. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and the BBC National Short Story Prize 2020, and won the People’s Choice prize. Open Water is his debut novel.

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