In a crowded London pub, two young people meet. 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—and both are trying to make their mark in a world 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, and over the course of a year they find their relationship tested by forces beyond their control.
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.
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.