Book Review – Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

books, reviews

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s safe to say that my Sunday didn’t exactly go to plan. I was intending to get stuff sorted. Mostly organise my week’s photos and then read this book. Thanks to unforeseen events, that didn’t happen, so I was rushing to get this book finished in time for this review. Good job it’s a pretty short book and one that is easy to read. I just about finished with enough time to spare. I was a bit later in getting to bed than I’d hoped but we can cope with that.

One of the central themes of Open Water is rhythm and the need to find a person’s personal rhythm. The unnamed photographer at the centre tries to take photos that portray their subject’s rhythm. The dancer that he meets one night at a pub uses her stage to connect to her own. One sees and the other is seen. Maybe it’s no wonder that they are drawn to each other. There is an undeniable connection from the first meeting but, unfortunately, she is in a relationship with his friend. Instead, the two become friends. At least until they can’t deny it any longer.

Though it might seem like a simple and unoriginal story, Open Water is more than a boy meets girl will they/won’t they. It is a story of identity and freedom. Of discovering who you are and being able to show the world. The romance at its centre is interwoven with an exploration of Blackness and Black masculinity. The world views Black people in a political way regardless of their behaviour and this novel forces you to examine that from a different perspective. You see the pressure on a young Black man to live in the world whilst constantly being seen in the wrong way. Is it any wonder that they work so hard to avoid revealing themselves to the world?

I wasn’t entirely convinced of the second person narration but, over time, I grew to appreciate it. The unusual choice brings extra intimacy to the story. It creates an emotional connection and allows the writer to heighten the intensity of the feelings being explored. The relationship between the reader and the protagonist is mirroring the close connection between the photographer and the dancer. You are forced to place yourself in his position and understand what he is facing every day. When he is stopped by the police, you feel what it is like to be seen. An act that goes so against his very nature.

What is so refreshing about Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel is the writing. His luscious and sensuous language has a rhythm of its own. A rhythm that really starts to come out towards the end of the novel when the protagonist starts to show his real self. There is a flow to each sentence and a carefully crafted pace about the whole book. It is like poetry or music. Like any other complex composition, themes and motifs are repeated throughout the story. Words, lines and paragraphs are repeated to provide a unique voice. It’s wonderful.

Though there are plenty of difficult themes in this book, there is also celebration. This work is a celebration of Black creativity and hope for the future. The photographer name-checks several Black writers, artists and musicians. The photographer discusses the importance of Black art in his life and how it continues to shape his understanding of the world. It shows that there is a space for Black people to express their rhythm and individuality. A place where they can be respected, find their voice and inspire others.

Open Water is a wonderful book and a very strong debut novel. There is a lot going on which is both a great thing and a bit of a curse. There’s just so much to deal with in such a short space. Maybe I’m just greedy but I would have loved this to be slightly longer. Other than that, I think this is an incredibly strong and unforgettable book.

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