Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

I requested to read via Netgalley, my thanks go to the publishers who granted access. This review forms my honest opinion.


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. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.


What I love most about reading is the way in which the reader can be so completely transported into the mind of someone entirely different. Words forming the ability to see through the eyes of someone else is a powerful medium, and this book, more than any I’ve read recently really did this for me.

Open Water is short in length, but what the author achieves in that space is seriously impressive. The themes are big. Race, masculinity, love, trust and trauma, so that at its end I was left feeling that I had walked in the shoes of another. It felt unlike anything else I’ve read before.

From the off, I was jarred. The story is told in the second person narrative, and I inwardly (and most probably outwardly too) sighed. It’s a narrative style I’ve never really got along with well. But, I’d been really looking forward to reading and so onwards I went – and although it took me a while to adjust, as the story unfolded I felt that the feeling of displacement I felt through the narrative was working impeccably well in heightening the loss of the sense of self in the main character.

The story begins with two young people who meet and feel an instant connection to one another, beginning a friendship as a precursor to more. It’s a timeless, universal story, and that’s where it begins. But to me, this felt to be a story of two halves. The core love story leads into an individual coming to terms with a collective experience. The themes of racism, in particular institutional racism, are so powerful here, through the authors beautiful, poetic prose. The first half of the story had me fall in love with this young man, whilst the latter half played on these emotions so that I felt acute anger as he seemed to diminish under the glare of being a young, black man.

It’s a paradox of a novella – subtle, and yet so powerful. The plot unravels slowly, and yet still packs a punch by its end. Startling in the beauty of its lyrical prose, which is at times hypnotising, Open Water is not an easy read, but it’s an important one, and I look forward to reading more from Caleb Azumah Nelson in the future.

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