Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is a beautiful, lyrical novella by the young British Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson, named as one of The Observer’s 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2021. I read it because our bookshop co-hosted an event with Caleb recently, and it was so enjoyable to hear him talk about the themes within the book – he really is a very thoughtful and engaging speaker.

The book – which focuses on two central protagonists, one male, one female, both black and in their early twenties – is at once both a tender love story and a searing insight into what it feels to be young, black and male in the South London of recent years. (While both characters are crucial to the narrative, the male protagonist is Nelson’s main focus.)

The young man (a photographer) and the young woman (a dancer) meet while the latter is still in a relationship with a mutual friend, Samuel. This earlier relationship soon dissolves as a hesitant, yet close bond develops between the two main protagonists – not sexual at first, although their connection to one another is deeply soulful.

As she does so, reclining into the sofa, she reaches for your hand, and you take it, fitting together like this is an everyday. She’s wearing rings on her fore and ring fingers, the bands cool between your own. Neither of you dare look at one another as you hold this heavy moment in your hands. You’re light-headed, and warm. You’re both silent. You’re both wondering what it could mean that desire could manifest in this way, so loud for such a tender touch. It’s she who breaks the moment (p. 44)

There is a somewhat fragmentary nature to the couple’s relationship, partly imposed by periods of physical separation when the young woman returns to Dublin to study. Nelson writes beautifully about the sensation of progressing from friendship to love, how our innermost feelings can be exhilarating yet also expose a noticeable sense of vulnerability. The simple pleasures of shared moments – eating a pizza together curled up on the sofa, the buzz and wind-down of a night out – lend the narrative a genuine emotional sensitivity.

Through his use of a second-person narrative, Nelson imbues this story with a wonderful combination of intimacy and immediacy, a feeling that fits so naturally with the novella’s intertwined themes. The fact that we never learn the names of Nelson’s two main protagonists also gives the story a sense of universality – while these individuals’ experiences are deeply personal, they will also likely resonate with many of us, hopefully in a variety of different ways. 

Nelson is particularly strong when it comes to conveying the feeling of inhabiting a black body, that sense of being stared at but not seen – certainly not as a person with emotions and feelings.

…and so you hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else. (pp. 118–119)

What really comes across here is the fear young black men experience on a day-to-day basis. Will today be a day when they are stopped and searched? Will today be a day of confrontation? Will today be the day they lose their life?

Also threaded through the story are vignettes highlighting the inspiration that can come from the creative arts. These examples, drawn from various black writers and filmmakers, are clearly touchstones for the young man, intertwined as they are with his innermost thoughts and feelings. I was delighted to see a mention of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk here – both the film and the book are great favourites of mine, and if they’re of interest you can read my brief thoughts on the novel via the link.

As the narrative unfolds, it is possible to detect a growing sense of danger, the feeling that confrontation or violence could erupt at any given moment. Without wishing to give too much away, an incident occurs that causes the young man to withdraw into himself, unable to verbalise the situation’s emotional impact. It’s a development that forces a rupture in the central relationship, a wound that cuts swift and deep, as sharp as a knife.

Nelson has succeeded in writing a delicately balanced novel which is by turns tender, poetic, powerful and thoughtful. It is a story for our times, an exploration of love, creativity and the need to be seen, especially in a world where there is fear and prejudice. An exciting new voice in literature that deserves to be heard.

Open Water is published by Viking, an imprint of PRH; personal copy.

31 thoughts on “Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was fascinating to hear him talk about the book and the various ideas / points of inspiration behind it. I’d joined the session with the aim of getting some background on the story, but it sounded so captivating that I ended up reading it for myself. One of those books that takes you by surprise or slightly out of your normal sphere of reading, if you know what I mean. Thanks for the link to your review, Liz. I’m just about to go out but will bookmark to read later.

      Reply
  1. A Life in Books

    I’ve yet to read this, Jacqui, but had high hopes for it which you’ve raised further. Beautiful writing and a difficult subject handled sensitively. That second person narrative style is a tricky one to pull off, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re right, it is very tricky. The last second-persona narrative that I recall reading was Niven Govinden’s novel All the Days and Nights, which I think you’ve read too? That’s another book where the POV gives a very intimate feel to the story, very much in line with the subject matter at hand.

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I had read something about this novel elsewhere (probably a commercial review) and thought it sounded interesting. Your review has certainly raised my interest; it definitely sounds like a novel (and writer) to keep an eye on.
    Thanks for the links, both to your review and the Observer’s list of debut novels. I’ll check both out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ve very welcome. I’m actually quite surprised by how many of those debuts I’ve heard about over the past few months – and all very positive I might add. Sometimes those articles can be very hit-or-miss, but this particular one seems bang on the money.

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    Beautiful quotes. So interesting how some writers can manage second person ; others not. I don’t know that I would ever choose to write in it myself, but here where he is looking at himself from without as well as within it works well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It really adds to the feeling of intimacy / immediacy in the book, which seems completely entwined with the idea of putting the reader in the writer’s shoes. I think you’d find it interesting from a technical perspective – and, as you quite rightly say, the prose is beautiful.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui and those quotes are stunning. I don’t think I’ve read many books written in second person narrative, but this sounds as if it’s done very successfully. What a clever way to tell a story and if it manages to get us to understand how it is to live like these characters have to, it’s some achievement. I’ve read several pieces recently from one particular black writer concerning bringing up his young son and how to deal with the prejudice he’ll have to face; and it was shocking to hear him say he’d chosen, as an American, to bring his son up in Britain because the police here don’t carry guns… I wasn’t aware of this book, so thank you for writing about it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. The writing is beautiful, isn’t it? Like a prose poem at times. I’m not normally a big fan of novels written in the second person — a French reader once recommended a book by Philippe Besson to me, assuring me that I would love it, but I couldn’t get into it at all! Nevertheless, in this instance, I think the second-person perspective works really well. The day-to-day experience of ‘inhabiting’ a black body is an important part of what the author is trying to convey here, so I’m glad you’ve picked up on that aspect in your comments. He’s also written a short story called Pray, which was shortlisted for last year’s BBC National Short Story Award, so I’m going to listen to it via the podcast at some point this week.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    A second person narrative is always a different approach but does provide a real intimate, immediacy to a narrative. This sounds like a really well drawn portrayal of modern relationships.

    Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    Your review of Open Water and the quotes really spotlight what sounds like a special book. It’s so difficult to pull off second person narrative well, to give a reader an understanding of what it’s like as a Black man to not be seen as an individual, the beauty of a developing relationship, and the connections of being an artist. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jule. Yes, that’s it exactly. There are quite a few different elements to this narrative, but they come together quite beautifully. It’s a very impressive book for a debut, so I’m curious to see where the author decides to go from here.

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    This sounds wonderful. I’ll request it through the library. Thank you. Speaking of Beale Street and powerful films, have you seen Moonlight: what a beautiful love story there too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I’m really glad you like the sound of it. I have seen Moonlight, and while I admired it as a striking piece of art, Beale Street was the one that really moved me.

      Reply
  8. lonesomereadereric

    This is a wonderful post about a beautiful novel! I agree with your thoughts about the use of second-person narration. I’m often skeptical about how this form of narrative is used but it works perfectly in this book. I also loved the scene meeting Zadie Smith. I hope he publishes more!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric! That means a lot coming from you as your posts are always so thoughtful, eloquent and beautifully written. I love the whole mood Nelson creates in this novel, and his use of the second-persona narrative feels an integral component of that closeness and intimacy. As you say, it’ll be fascinating to see what he produces next. On that note, I must listen to his short story, Pray, one of the shortlisted pieces from last year’s BBC National Short Story Award. It’s still available via the podcast, I believe.

      Reply
  9. Susan Dillon

    This sounds like a lovely novel. I might try to overcome my dislike of second person narration to read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool. I’m really glad to hear you like the sound of it. The second persona narrative works brilliantly here. I’m not normally a fan of the technique either, but in this case it feels completely natural!

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    The quotes are stunning. Sometimes second person narrative can feel alienating but even those short pieces drew me in so quickly. I didn’t manage my May novella reading this year but this is definitely on the list for next year!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! I’m sure it would fit right in with your novella project. Plus, the paperback edition should be out by then, making it a more cost-effective option than the h/b.

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    Books in the second person which are done well are rare – Ron Butlin’s The Sound of my Voice is one of the few I know. In this instance, though, it’s the description of lived experience of being a black man which you make sound so vital.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m really glad that comes across so strongly as it feels like the most important (and most powerful) aspect of the book – and it’s enhanced by the author’s use of the second person, making it feel like a direct conversation between the writer (via his central character) and the reader. If you’re still running your book group on interesting short books, this would be an excellent one to pick!

      Reply
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