#BookReview Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open WaterAbout the Book

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.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water 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.

Format: Paperback (160 pages)         Publisher: Viking
Publication date: 3rd February 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

Winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2021, Open Water is an inventive attempt to convey what it is like to be a Black man in today’s London and how racial prejudice by the police and other parts of society can have a damaging psychological effect.  The book also challenges commonly held ideas about masculinity, namely that men should hold their emotions in check.

The development of the relationship between the main character and a woman, whose name we also never learn, from a deeply felt friendship based on a shared love of music, dancing and art to something more is conveyed in a tender and touching way. It is she who makes the first move in putting their relationship on a more intimate footing. ‘She has swum out into open water, and it is not long before you join her.’ However, it’s a relationship that may be unable to survive in the face of an act of violence witnessed by the narrator, an act that might so nearly have happened to him, and which leaves him traumatised.

Written in the second person, the reader is encouraged to see themselves as the book’s unnamed protagonist. (For grammar nerds, the book also makes use of the historic present tense.)  Since the book references art, music and literature unfamiliar to me (although there is an accompanying playlist on Spotify), I’m not sure that it succeeded in making me experience events in a deeper way than if it had been written in the first person. In fact, given the similarities between the author and the book’s protagonist – they are both photographers, have grown up in South East London, and so on – there is an autobiographical quality to the book.

The writing is poetic in style with frequent use of repetition and utilising some imaginative similes, some of which worked better than others for me. For example, I liked the idea of the two of them being like ‘headphones wires tangling… A messy miracle’. However, the comparison of an extension lead trailing in the grass to ‘a loose thought’ or a ‘skinny whimper’ to being as ‘sharp as a butter knife’ (the whole point of butter knives surely being they are not sharp?) left me wondering if the author was trying a bit too hard to be profound.

Overall, I felt the important things the book has to say about racial prejudice, police violence and the everyday experiences of Black people, and in particular young Black men, just about survived the sometimes elaborate prose. I’m aware I’m in a minority when it comes to this since others have praised its ‘poetic brilliance’ and ‘lyrical and propulsive prose’.

In three words: Expressive, intense, thought-provoking

Try something similar: NW by Zadie Smith

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Caleb Azumah NelsonAbout the Author

Caleb Azumah Nelson is a twenty-seven-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His photography has been shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People’s Choice Prize. His short story, Pray, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020. His first novel, Open Water, won the Costa First Novel Award, was shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize.

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