Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water explores a year in the life of a young Black man, who works as a photographer and lives with his family in London as well as a relationship he has with a young black woman and how his life experiences impact on their relationship and vice versa.
As a photographer, the second person narrator feels a duty to document, to look closer, to see better and as the book opens, he meets a young woman who is a dancer and is in a relationship with his friend, but with whom he makes an immediate connection. They become friends, then close friends and as their relationship progresses, the narrator charts the difficulties and joys that they face together.
Interwoven with the story of their relationship is the narrator’s reflections on his family and their roots in Ghana, the traumatic incidents that punctuate his life as a young black man and his love of black music, film, literature and art. Through these vignettes Nelson is exploring the need for black men to be seen in their own right, to create and to document their own truth.
In some respects he succeeds, but I found Open Water to be frustratingly uneven. The themes and topics explored are fascinating and ripe for investigation but by setting them against the backdrop of a somewhat insipid romance diluted their power for me.
From a stylistic point of view, Nelson is an interesting writer. It takes an assured hand to make the second-person voice work and he succeeds in making the prose flow. There is a blending of poetry and prose that can combine to make something thoughtful and beautiful.
Turn to your neighbour and take one step forward as they take another step back, switch positions, move, move, move, become overwhelmed by the water, let it wash over you, let the trauma rise up like vomit, spill it, go on, let it spill on the ground let go of the pain, let go of the fear, let go. You are safe here, you said. You are seen here. You can live here. We are all hurting, you said. We are all trying to live, to breathe, and find ourselves stopped by what is out of our control.
Yet at other times, the writing slips into cliché and the lyricism feels forced. Repetition is used throughout but often without enough conviction, making some phrases feel like bad editing rather than determined resonance. Several situations are described as ‘fever dreams’, lots of people smell like home and there are countless passages where the narrator opens his mouth to speak but sobs instead.
I was also unconvinced by the central romance, which is nestled as the crux of the novel but which never came to dramatic life for me. Maybe it is my age, but as in Normal People, I tire of relationship issues that could be resolved if two people just had an honest conversation with one another. I never felt that the stakes were high enough in Open Water to justify the intensity of the writing.
The references to various black musicians, photographers and filmmakers and the works of writers such as Zadie Smith, Teju Cole and James Baldwin are interesting and insightful in their own right, but for me they didn’t integrate into the wider story. At these points, I felt jolted from the narrative, as if the author were now talking to me rather than the character. The references are telling and I felt at times like Open Water exists at the point where Teju Cole and Sally Rooney collide and the melding is an awkward one.
I found myself much more interested in Nelson’s musings on black culture and the lived experience of young black men in London today and was much more impressed with his thoughtful and moving interrogation of society than with the rather earnest romance.
I’m aware that this review is coming across as very negative and that wasn’t necessarily my reaction. It feels youthful and unpolished, but I think that Caleb Azumah Nelson is a promising and exciting young writer.
When Open Water works best, it is when Nelson explores the challenges facing young black men to be seen on their own terms. There are two very powerful scenes towards the end of the book – one in a barbershop and one involving a car crash – which clearly encapsulate his talent and insight. As a celebration of the cultural significance of Black artists and exploration of the ways systemic racism features in every facet of the lives of young Black men, Open Water is impressive.
This book may not have completely worked for me, but I will look forward to what Nelson writes next.
For some more (positive!) reviews of Open Water, check out Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal, Rebecca at Bookish Beck, Callum McLaughlin and Liz at Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home.
We have a signed copy of Open Water to give away, so if you’d like to make your own mind up on this debut, leave a comment below and I’ll draw a winner by the end of the month and will ship internationally.
Nelson writes very convincingly about the power of music so Viking Books put together a Spotify playlist of all the songs mentioned in the book just to add to the atmosphere! Check it out here…
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!