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Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

20th April, 2023.

Open Water

I don’t tend to re-read books. I will be re-reading Open Water. It is one of the most beautiful, immersive, and emotive books I can remember falling into. 


I can’t provide a neat categorisation for this book and that is definitely part of what makes it so memorable. It has stayed in my head since I read the final words with a sad but contented sigh. Sad, because the characters and story had taken up a comfy residence in my brain and it was a wrench to say goodbye. But contented due to how damn satisfying and nourishing reading it had been. 

Caleb Azumah Nelson drops you into Open Water in the basement of a London pub. You are with a friend, you notice a woman. You think about the music. Through the second person narrative you are the nameless protagonist - an early 20s black British man in London navigating a complex relationship with his identity and city and the young woman meets. She is a dancer. He is a photographer. She waltzes into his life and he sees the picture of her with his best friend. And so the love story begins. 

This is like no other love story I have read and everything - to me - is familiar but unusual. It is a hymn (a gospel? A prayer?) to black culture and the experience of being a young black man in modern London. Often in fiction the use of cultural references feels a tad forced, awkward, an affectation. Here it imbues every action - the use of musical artists sets mood, tone, emotion and I was grateful for the official playlist as the protagonist mentions specific songs. At one point the film Moonlight is referenced, another scene is soundtracked by Solange, something else brings a memory of a play. These varied cultural references help to clue us in to the soul of our protagonist. 

The language and style gives events a heightened feeling - eating outside with friends on a hot day is elevated into cinema, sleeping close to each other is balletic, dialogue full of pauses like Pinter, emotional outpouring like an opera. This book is so poetic in its feel and prose and as I was reading the references to Drake, Dizzee Rascal, Frank Ocean, Solange, it also reminded me of the visceral work of Federico Garcia Lorca, and also of Christina Rossetti with the repetition and natural imagery. 


There is a real convergence of classic and contemporary and this mash up suits a story that is both ancient and modern; memories of grandparents and family in a far away country brush up against the modern world and paint their history over today.

Right from the start the connection between "you" and the young woman is clear but so is the tension - she is with your best friend, you are unsure of how to proceed. This tense undercurrent underpins your interactions with everything - the police, the violence, uncertainty about the future. Do you belong? How can someone truly see you when you are struggling in your own skin?


The narrative is fragmented and episodic at times - like a photographer's exhibition of snapshots - but there is the connecting lyrical thread that joins together the verses and the rhythm of the prose keeps the beat going. From pubs to clubs, from sun splashed  gardens to cocooned bedrooms, and from fast food joints to the barbers. Oh the barbers. Like the psychiatrist's office the scenes in the barbers trim away more than hair to see the vulnerability, the bruised masculinity, but also the determined heart. 


Please forgive me a minor tangent - I am a fan of podcasts because of how a great one can pull you in and it’s just you and the audio in your ears and on a long walk I can be somewhere - someone - totally different and be utterly transported. There is one that has stayed with me for years (Something Large and Wild by This is Love.) It tells the story of a swimmer, a teenage girl on her morning swim in the ocean when she senses something beneath her. Something big. What follows is tense, startling, an unconventional story of love. I am not a swimmer. I have not swam in the ocean with something beneath me. But emotions? The compulsion to do something based on a feeling? Yes, absolutely. Even thinking about it now I get this non verbal reaction - just a swell, a surge of feeling. It’s the closest I can get to describing Open Water. It is a story you feel rather than one you follow.

Sometimes that feeling is like a punch. Like when you the protagonist are stopped by the police. They. You. The short, disembodied sentences make it routine but quick. Tense. Then the release as they let you go - but the effect of the action is done. 

“You are hollowed out, like it was not just your bag they emptied.”


This book is full of moments like this, where it made me pause, stop, think, imagine, feel. Something so brief, so seemingly inconsequential but sends out ripples. Sometimes there is a big splash - like when his love goes away. He sees her off on the train and if you have ever waved off your love on a bus or train you will know that awful feeling of loss whilst in a public place - to this day I have a weird feeling at bus and train stations. The description of the tears flowing and the plunge into emotions is deep and overwhelming:


“It is an ache you have not known and do not know how to name. It is terrifying. And yet, you both knew what you were getting into. You know that to love is to swim and drown. You know to love is to be whole, partial, a joint, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and heal. It is to be in the world, honest.”


This book is honest and true and this gifted writer makes you live this world - this world where everything feels close - the weather, the music, people…but at any point it could all drop away to the depths. It is a story about being seen, feeling accepted, somewhere to belong:

“You didn’t have a home coming not this world, but you're home now. You’re home now.”


Caleb Azumah Nelson’s next book is out now: Small Worlds.

Biscuit rating: Dark Chocolate Viennese fingers..

Stylish and elegant but also tender and delicate with a hint of bitterness providing contrasting flavours. 

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