I recently invited writer and writer Jyoti Patel to my podcast to discuss her eight Desert Island Books. Of the books she selected, I was most interested in Open Water by the British-Ghanaian writer Caleb Azumah Nelson. Jyoti said of Nelson’s debut novel, “It explores masculinity, vulnerability, love, racism and police brutality with amazing intimacy against a backdrop of great art, music and literature.” – so the day after my podcast was recorded, I bought a copy of Gertrude & Alice to see if it lived up to its hype.
Open water book review
And lives up to his praise. At just under 150 pages, I read Open Water in a single session and didn’t want it to end. Nelson’s novel is at its core a love story, incredibly beautifully written and in some places so poetic and prosaic that I returned several passages to reread.
Exquisitely designed, despite the relatively short length of Open Water, it is one of the most impactful texts I have read in a long time; and one that stayed with me a long time after the last page. A story about two nameless black Londoners – a photographer and a dancer – Open Water is written from a 2nd person perspective and explores everything from identity to what it means to be young and black in London to the nature of Masculinity down to the parameter of privilege. As first friends, their relationship soon evolves into something more, and what follows is a poignant and powerful portrayal of the open waters of an emotionally intense and intimate relationship as the couple become lovers.
Lyrical, intimate, meditative, and brooding, Nelson’s language skills and storytelling skills are second to none, and I found it absolutely amazing that a debut writer his age should have such an insightful understanding of prose. A novel everyone should read and hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. Here is just one of the many tender and hurtful passages in the story:
“You hear fear. You can hear corpses being crumpled. A knee on a crooked back, a folded book on a crooked back. We didn’t do anything, we didn’t do anything, do you hear Daniel say. You don’t listen. You are heavy and you are afraid. They scan you, rummage through your pockets and ask what you are hiding. You want to say the pain, but you think they won’t understand. Not if they are complicit. This goes on until they get tired, bored, they lose focus, they are called elsewhere. Just do our job, they say. You can go now, they say.
Are we ever? “
Summary of the open water
Two young people meet in a pub in south east London. Both are black British, both won scholarships at private schools where they fought for their affiliation, both are now artists – he is a photographer, she is a dancer – trying to distinguish themselves in a city that alternately celebrates and rejects them. Carefully, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.
Buy Open Water at Bookshop.org, Book Depository, Waterstones, Amazon or Amazon AU.
I loved this piece in the New York Times: For Caleb Azumah Nelson, it’s freedom in what is seen.
Caleb Azumah Nelson Author Biography
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in southeast London. His writing was published in Litro. He was recently nominated for the Palm Photo Prize and the 2020 BBC National Short Story Prize, and won the People’s Choice Prize. Open Water is his debut novel.
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