Review: ‘Open Water’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

You know that to love is both to swim and to drown.


5/5 paper planes

What’s This Book About?

Genre: Contemporary romance, literary fiction
Publication: 4 Feb 2020
Pages: 145 (hardcover)


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.

Content warnings (highlight to see): racism, police brutality, alcohol, grief, depression, panic attacks, illness, death, sex/sexual references

What I Thought:

How could such a short book give me such a big book hangover?

‘Open Water’ was deeply moving in many respects. It was also a pleasant surprise that it was in second-person narration (i.e. the protagonist is referred to as ‘you’) which was incredibly effective and heightened every emotion. Normally it takes a little while for me to emotionally connect/invest with even my favourite characters, but something about this second-person narration and Nelson’s writing style just built that bridge instantly.

The prose in this is beyond beautiful – poetic and intense and so many times I started highlighting a phrase only to end up literally going to the end of the whole page. It’s truly a special book when you have to physically stop reading and just absorb how good the sentence/paragraph is.

Your mother prays every day that this will not be the day. You hear her through the bathroom door, praying for her sons, even as you play rapper while you swim in shallow water. No one has bars harder than your mum as she prays for you every day that this will not be the day… You flash the smile of a king but you both know regicide is rife.

This book also helped me realise that sea and water-related metaphors are my JAM, and these gems were aplenty here.

There is both great joy and great sadness in this book. As Nelson writes, multiple truths can reside in parallel.

[Y]ou have stopped trying to forget that feeling, that anger, that ugly, and instead have accepted it as part of you, along with your joy, your beauty, your light. Multiple truths do exist, and you do not have to be the sum of your traumas.

The bones of the plotline are ostensibly simple, but when is love ever simple? ‘Open Water’ follows the blossoming of a truly precious, soulmate-level connection, how such a powerful love can fracture, and how such a break can heal. The discussions of race and men’s mental health were also very insightful and felt highly personal. I wonder how cathartic it must have felt to use such evocative words to give shape to things that can seem so intangible.

The ending was absolutely perfect as well. Gives some closure but is open-ended enough that the story can still breathe.

If you look closely, you’ll see what she has always seen, what she always will: you.

Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin UK for an eARC for an honest review.

PS: I need help from fellow ‘Block Editor’ users!

Recently I’ve been having a ton of trouble with my reusable blocks. I add them to my draft…and they just show up as empty boxes with a ‘+’ sign in the middle, no image or text, and in ‘Preview’ mode nothing’s visible. It’s maddening and not ideal when I barely have time to write a blog post in the first place! Did this happen to any of you, and did you manage to fix it?

(Thank you in advance I am very stressed hahah)

Thanks for reading! Have you read ‘Open Water’ or is it on your TBR? Do you have any second-person narration book recommendations? What debuts have impressed you recently? Let me know in the comments!


5 thoughts on “Review: ‘Open Water’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

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