It is Azumah Nelson’s expressive style that most startlingly reanimates this formula. His presentation of the narrative in sensual but precisely paced sentences with elegant refrains and motifs imbues Open Water with a rhythm of its own. Azumah Nelson’s descriptions of his lovers’ physicality provide the clearest examples of his supple prose. ... While an elegance of style is a hallmark of Azumah Nelson’s storytelling, there is bold risk-taking in his choices too: he writes in the second person, using its immediacy and potency to create an emotional intensity that replicates the emotional intensity with which the protagonist experiences his bond with the dancer and his wider world. ... In its interweaving of the romantic arc with meditations on blackness and black masculinity, this affecting novel makes us again consider the personal through a political lens; systematic racism necessarily politicises the everyday experiences of black people. ... Running alongside is a glorious celebration of the exuberance of blackness. The photographer stresses that he and his community are 'more than the sum of [their] traumas'. As the protagonist explores the influences underpinning his own work, and in tender dialogue between the lovers, Azumah Nelson namechecks black artistry of all kinds, often drawing attention to its immersive power and transcendental effect. ...Given its slim size, the novel sometimes seems slightly crowded – not just with these enthusiastic references to black artists, but in other ways too. Alongside the main narrative, other topics fleetingly referred to include the difficulties of being a black person in a private school, curling at the Winter Olympics, the Notting Hill Carnival, basketball, Kierkegaard, the loss of grandparents ... This engaging breadth of interest might make us wish the book, at 176 pages, were a little longer to accommodate its investigative spirit. However, this range and the desire to record the variety of a particular black perspective demonstrate a key feature of Azumah Nelson’s work: his exciting ambition.
Family, grief, Blackness, Frank Ocean, hip-hop, dancing, growing up, breaking up, London, oppression, beef patties, basketball, diasporic trauma — for Caleb Azumah Nelson, it’s all water. The happy glide when it’s easy; the exhaustion of fighting against the current when it’s not. The threat of drowning always looming in the waves ... And in this unforgettable debut, Open Water, all streams are interconnected ... Azumah Nelson’s poetic brilliance, his ability to balance the general and the specific, the ambient and the granular, makes for a salient achievement ... But the big flouted convention, the big risk Azumah Nelson takes that doesn’t always quite pay off, is the second-person narration ... When Azumah Nelson finds his groove, however, we can forgive him all minor annoyances. Whether he’s describing a tense police encounter or lovers intertwined, when he’s great, which is often, his descriptive powers are truly special.
Narrated in the second person, the 'you' of the novel embodies a self that is at once a detached observer and a self-reflexive voice shaping the narrator’s own story ... The gaze—that fleeting instant of exchange—weaves a significant undercurrent of belonging and alienation in the novel ... sophisticated and unapologetic in its telling of a relationship between a Black man and a Black woman who come to see each other in rare, uninhibited intimacy interrupted by the constant, ambient violence of microaggressions and police brutality ... Nelson’s voice is wholly contemporary and original, shifting between essayistic modes that weave Saidiya Hartman, Teju Cole, and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight into the plot of the novel, adding to the chorus the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Kendrick Lamar to create a thunderous interdisciplinary lineage of uncompromising Black joy ... Through motif and repetition, Nelson creates a resonant aural narrative that is by turns lively and heartbreaking ... ultimately a novel that shows us how to move beyond a life of survival into a life that is lived—where one can be seen for who they are, even and especially when the personal is the political. It is a rare novel: a slow burner that is also a page-turner, reminding us that the erotic has always been about a richness of life.
There is great power in being seen, and in Caleb Azumah Nelson’s mesmerising debut novel, being acknowledged, reflected and understood is a revelation. This is an emotionally intelligent and tender tale of first love which examines, with great depth and attention, the intersections of creativity and vulnerability in London – where inhabiting a black body can affect how one is perceived and treated ... The reader is woven into the intimacy of the narrative told in the second person. Azumah Nelson’s lyrical prose takes us into the male protagonist’s mind as he makes sense of these new feelings. Cracks of light appear when he allows himself to be emotionally open. He finds it difficult to explain the shadows that follow him. When he shuts down, and shuts her out, the aftershocks of cumulative trauma are apparent ... Thankfully, Azumah Nelson has told this tale of art, love and black identity. And what a gift it is.
On one hand, then, Open Water is an exceptionally topical novel, its academic vocabulary ('plunder,' 'gaze,' 'Black body') and its intellectual referents—writer Zadie Smith, director Barry Jenkins, African-American studies scholar Saidiya Hartman—tying it closely to the political moment in ways that will reverberate deeply for some readers and, for others, simply convey information. But there is also something universal about the ragged vulnerability the love affair accesses in Mr. Nelson’s writing, and in his willingness to portray naked, often weepy, emotion. Everyone has experienced these things and yet in literary fiction scarcity has made them precious.
Nelson tells Open Water in the second person, which can seem contrived and off-putting for an entire novel, but the technique is, for the most part, successful and augments that feeling of universality so that when you read, you tend to interject yourself as the you of the story. His prose, too, is graceful, rhythmic, and Nelson heightens the novella’s sense of immediacy by writing in the present tense—things happen to you now ... Nelson’s story is a kind of music that captures the rhythms of joy, anguish, and love.
As a piece of work that seeks to make clear the experiences of a young black man in contemporary London, the culture of ingrained and pervasive racism that he endures on a daily basis, Open Water is a resounding success. There are many moving and insightful passages that relay with devastating accuracy on how systemic violence negatively affects the life of Azumah Nelson’s protagonist and the relationship he tries to build with a new girlfriend over the course of the novel ... For all its important messages, however, Open Water falters somewhat on fictional merit. Azumah Nelson’s use of the second-person voice gets the reader close to the experience of his character but the style is less than seamless, which sometimes holds up his narrative. Stylistically, the book is also problematic. The lyricism of the prose and the use of rhetorical devices are more suited to poetry or polemic than to fiction ... The biggest issue with Open Water is that it is too short on action for a novel. Most of the book sees the character reflecting in his head. It is a shame, as the small number of given scenes work really well to open up the book and let the reader dive into water along with the characters. Azumah Nelson is clearly a talented writer who may need further time to perfect the form. In the meantime, we have a worthy book, one that is both political and personal, that speaks its important message out to the world.
Styled as a lyrical second-person letter, this emotionally rich debut tells a budding love story against backdrops of Black culture, joy, and pain. In the course of a year, a young London photographer bonds with his ex's friend, a dancer and literature student, over matters of art and love; they go to restaurants, watch movies, discuss the world around them. Romance is in the air, too, as they get to work on a visual project capturing Black life in the city.
... when love takes two tender hearts hostage, it is almost impossible to run from it. Caleb Azumah Nelson certainly delivers these goods in Open Water, but he encases his core story in a more significant tale of violence and crippling racial trauma ... because the novel is written in the second person...the reader is not a distant observer but a character playing along. The experience is as imaginative as it is engaging. For people who think this point of view can be alienating, it can be ... What makes Open Water more than a reflection of what it means to be a Black man in the United Kingdom is the intimate look into what living in a world like that does to the Black man ... Nelson best demonstrates the afflicted self, and his command of details, in his illustration of masculinity and vulnerability ... One of the book’s most enthralling qualities is the way Nelson illuminates Black culture ... While these snippets of creative expression are memorable and enrich the text overall, the references may be just a little much for a novel this size. I wondered at times if a scene would be more powerful without weaving in a work of art. After a while, the repetitive effect disrupted the flow, and some references faded as details that could be easily skimmed over ... an open journal of what is all too familiar, as if a close friend were peeling off their layers to show what lies underneath. You can expect to be surprised by what you’ll find, not because you’re unaware that they’re hurting but because you didn’t realize the extent and rippling effects of their pain. For readers who know these scars intimately, Nelson offers some truths: you don’t have to be a sum of your traumas.
Caleb Azumah Nelson has captured a portrayal that is both unbending and unapologetic. Blackness is neither deified nor detested. It is simply allowed to be. Freedom is at the core of this novel. The question of whether liberty is possible within suppression is something that Nelson dwells upon, and he portrays beautifully through words and the moments when that liberty is afforded to Black men and women ... an in-depth analysis of how it can feel to be Black in today’s Britain, and the everyday hostility that can haunt Black people within the United Kingdom ... it is comforting and warm yet refreshing. You find yourself smiling at the pages, resonating. That feeling of representation is crucial, especially as the experience of seeing oneself as a Black person within a novel is so rare. Nelson, therefore, creates a space where a Black reader’s feelings are neither overlooked nor insulted, but the readers are able simply to enjoy the experience conjured up by this book ... I am grateful to Nelson for portraying the reality of so many.
This lyrical debut speaks to the universality — and complexity — of love in its many forms ... A refreshingly poetic ode to Black love ... Nelson’s bold writing style — which includes leaving his main characters unnamed and using intimate, second-person narration — allows the reader to step directly into the story, embracing the familiarity of love rather than hiding from it ... From its opening lines, the novel’s casual construction is apparent. It reads like a story being told by an old friend, so much so that by its closing paragraphs, you can’t help but feel emotionally drained, as if you’ve experienced love and loss alongside the characters ... Open Water isn’t merely the story of two young Londoners. It’s everyone’s story ... Caleb Azumah Nelson has taken many risks in this promising first project, and most of them pay off.
Caleb Azumah Nelson similarly finds form in emotional devastation. Centered around a romance between two young Black British artists, the novel’s unnamed second-person narrator bleeds himself dry on the page, expressing his desire and suffering with desperate clarity ... The narrator wants to dissolve himself in his partner’s love, but systemic forces prevent such a simple escape. Amid pervasive police profiling and racial violence, he knows that the path to freedom entails embracing his Blackness and subverting his masculine conditioning, the latter of which demands he bottle up his trauma. Although falling in love seems to offer temporary salvation, the novel argues that some scars need more than just domestic partnership to heal ... But in a book brimming with brilliant ideas and charming interiority, Open Water struggles to temper its lyricism and narrative ambitions, resulting in a captivating if not uneven read. The narrator tends to announce his emotions exactly as they are ... It can thus be difficult to distinguish the sublime from the sappy, the profound from the pedantic. And in a novel where there is no shortage of profundity, such overwriting creates a dissonance between what the author wants the reader to feel and what the reader may have been induced to feel without such specific instruction. The melodrama zaps otherwise searing moments of emotional weight ... Open Water is a moving novel that celebrates Black art and explores generational trauma.
Nelson’s impressive first novel is tender, lyrical, and all-consuming. In expertly crafted, poetic prose, this British Ghanaian writer tells the story of two young Black artists falling in love, falling out of love, and learning how to be soft and vulnerable in a society that refuses to allow them to be so ... what resonates the most is Nelson’s choice to narrate in the second person ... We readers are thus transformed with the protagonist, internalizing the realization that 'It’s one thing to be looked at and another to be seen.' A truly exceptional debut.
Open Water, is about the pain, challenges, and necessity for a Black man to find his voice, be seen, create art, and speak his truth. Nelson’s uneven work is both mature and immature, original and cliched, too much and too little on the compelling and urgent topic of a Black man’s experiences in contemporary London ... Interwoven with the narrator’s daily experiences are reflections on his parents, brother, and grandmother in Ghana, traumatic memories of and encounters with unjust assaults on Black people, and references to art, music, literature, and film ... The narrator’s construction of his documentary as well as Nelson’s creation of his novel give form to Black bodies and voices. Stylistically Open Water moves between poetry and prose ... For the most part, the mix of poetry and prose works. However, in places, the narrative is repetitive, lapses into cliché, is overwrought, too referential, and lacking in subtlety ... While unpolished in places, Open Water is the work of a talented and promising young writer. Caleb Azumah Nelson creatively and insightfully gives voice to the pain and trauma of a Black man’s existence in the UK. Sadly, his painful and relevant narrative mirrors what has become an all-too commonplace experience for a Black man in the US.
Nelson’s breathtaking lyrical debut employs a love story to explore systemic racism and the cultural impact of Black artists. Set primarily in London and told in second person, the novel follows a young unnamed Black photographer as he forges an artistic working relationship with a friend’s ex ... The result is consistently powerful.