Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson


A stunning, shattering debut novel about two Black artists falling in and out of love.

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 debut of recent years.

Trigger Warnings:

Racism, Bereavement and Grief.


‘We were caught up in something. A happy accident. A messy miracle.’

Caleb Azumah Nelson, Open Water

Most of the things I want to say about Nelson’s Debut have already been said on the jacket. It’s poetic, powerful, sombre and heartfelt. It’s a Love Song and a Love Story, and it’s delicately written. So, I suppose, all that’s left for me to say about it is why I think it’s all of those things; and trying to artfully explain myself, without ruing the chance for you to experience it for yourself.

Let’s start with the writing style; it takes a strong, careful hand to write in second person. To involve the audience as a direct character, choreographing them through the narrative without making them feel isolated and lost. Nelson wields his prose like a scalpel, carving through the intrigue and plot with fine precision. It’s painful and poignant in equal measure. It often had me feeling like a voyeur, leaning in through an open window, watching something I had no right to spy on. It made me feel shy, guilty; how dare I bear witness to this love story? These vulnerable moments. Especially when, as a white reader, one of the things that links to the two protagonists is their experiences in white spaces, isolated due to their Blackness. How dare I form an opinion of them, in these moments of Black Joy? Nelson describes his own writing best when he says,

‘I never felt unwelcome, but there was always something I didn’t feel privy to.’

Caleb Azumah Nelson, Open Water

And whilst he is writing about a very different context, it would be impossible for a reader not to empathise.

‘You’ [the main character] are a mid-twenties Black Photographer living in South East London, a character which strongly reflects the creator, Nelson, who is a 26 year old British Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. ‘She’ is a dancer, tall, beautiful, and a dancer. I love the juxtaposition of arts used here; a photographer, constantly on the outside looking in, much as the audience is. The dancer, caught in the motion of the narrative. Never in one place for very long, travelling, living, existing in their own plane of escapism. For such a short read, there’s a lot of delve into regarding their actions, their choreography, and their dialogue. A lot which isn’t said, without it falling into the cliché trap of ‘miscommunication.’ I’ll avoid talking about the disintegration that’s hinted in the synopsis, in an attempt to avoid spoilers; but – in case it was at all unclear from the above – I really enjoyed this novella over all. I couldn’t fault it, in anyway, which is why I’ve given it 5 stars. I hope you reach for it too, it’s worth the read.

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