Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

The image is of two photographs of young Black men, one above the other. The one on top is looking directly at the camera while the one underneath is looking towards the ground. The title is in light blue across both photographs, with a background of pale red and orange.

By Ash B.

Are you looking for a lyrical novel to savor slowly, perhaps while sipping tea (or your warm beverage of choice) on a quiet day? The type of novel that can break your heart and then put it back together, over and over again? 

Well then, reader, do I have the perfect suggestion for you. 

Open Water is the debut novel from Caleb Azumah Nelson, a 26-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London, and wow, what a debut! Consider me truly impressed – in fact, if I had to recommend a single 2021 release for you to catch up on, it would be this one. (Yes, it is that good)!

A love story at its core, Open Water follows two young artists, one a photographer and the other a dancer, as they develop an intimate friendship that challenges the boundaries of platonic and romantic relationships. 

However, the connection between these two is complicated not only by the details of their initial meeting, but also by the realities of life as Black British young adults; experiences of falling in love are not mutually exclusive with experiences of racism. The desire and affection two people feel for each other can be healing, but it does not create an impermeable bubble from fear, pain, and violence. So, this is absolutely not “just” a love story. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those, either, but Open Water is a different vibe).

Nelson masterfully balances Black joy and creative expression – especially descriptions of music and the South East London cultural scene – with experiences of racial profiling and the policing of Black bodies. Life is so beautiful yet so painful, and Nelson captures this complexity with ease.  

He writes with insight into vulnerability and mental health in a style that is understated yet breathtakingly poignant. Also, the narrative is told in second-person, which might be off-putting to some readers, but I found it to be all the more engaging. You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? Nelson skillfully places the reader inside the inner world of his protagonist through this use of second-person perspective. It’s brilliant. 

Months have passed since I actually read this book, but I still can’t get over the flow of Nelson’s writing – it truly is like water, smooth at some times and turbulent at others. If you enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong with its poetic vignettes, but would appreciate a more hopeful tone or different subject matter, you will love Open Water. 

And even if this doesn’t sound like what you would typically read, I would still recommend this book to just about anyone. I’m nearly begging for more people to read it at this point, if I’m being honest. I’m so desperate for this book to get the attention it deserves! 

At under 200 pages, the slim size of the book isn’t intimidating, and despite this short length, there is so much to get out of this book. You might even want to keep a camera (or, you know, your smartphone) close by in order to take photos of all the beautiful quotes you don’t want to forget. That’s certainly what I did, as well as repeatedly putting the book down throughout to marvel at what I had just read. I got chills. I felt literal aching in my heart. I was reminded what an utterly tender, yearning type of human I am. I loved, loved, loved this book. I hope you will too! 

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson can be requested here. It is included in both our regular Adult Fiction collection as well as our Equity Resource Center collection.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

2 thoughts on “Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

  1. Thank you for this enticing review! Music, dance, love..what else is needed.
    I am a big fan of short novels. Can’t wait for a copy.

    Like

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