Review of Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

What can I say about this book? At first, I found it difficult to dive into. The passages felt fragmented and disconnected. It was only after reading that Nelson intended this novel to have the feel of an album that I was able to truly understand how cleverly and lyrically it had been written. Nelson writes this novel in a very poetic way. Sentences are repeated throughout the book in the same way that a chorus would be repeated in a song. The repetition not only serves the lyrical flow of the novel, but it also serves to highlight certain motifs and thoughts that Nelson wants us to understand as readers. Even the narrative choice is very telling of the wider purpose of this book. It is written in the second person which makes the reader feel like the protagonist. We are referred to as “you” and I am certain that this is intended to enable us to really connect with the love, grief, and fear that our nameless protagonist experiences as he is simply trying to live his life in South London.

This narrative choice is very powerful and works incredibly well for this book, as it enables the reader to see how deeply moving the love that the protagonist experiences is. It also enables the reader to understand how frequently the protagonist experiences fear about his body being nothing more than an object that can break at any moment. All around him he sees other black men being attacked by the police and the world at large. Sightings of these incidents invoke anxiety in the protagonist such that when he is near the police, he instantly feels nervous. He almost senses when other black men are in danger, and this makes him feel even more anxious as it constantly reminds him of his own mortality in a world that frequently seeks to destroy the bodies of black people. This reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay Between the World and Me, which is itself heavily influenced by James Baldwin’s essay, The Fire Next Time. Nelson brings the fear that black men feel about their impending death at the hands of the white supremacist world that we all live in into the heart of this novel. What makes it even more outstanding is that this book is not simply just about fear, grief, and trauma but also about love and joy. The protagonist reminds us that fear and love often go hand in hand and that neither emotion exists forever. Our protagonist oscillates between several emotions throughout the book and as readers we are bearing witness to this intense journey.

What I found most captivating about the book is the raw honesty with which the protagonist describes his emotions, particularly his fear, grief, and love. I have never come across a black male protagonist who feels so deeply, who is so vulnerable, and is so affected by his emotions. We witness him alone as he grapples with the death of his grandparents. We witness how tender he is with his nameless love as they move from a burgeoning friendship filled with joy to the beginnings of their intimate love story. We watch our protagonist struggle to grapple with his anger at the world’s fetish for brutally attacking black men, which leads him to push his love interest away. This is something I have seen a lot in other novels, and even television programmes, that feature a female protagonist. She either doesn’t think she is worthy of love or has so much self-loathing and sadness in her heart that all she feels she can do is push people away; I am particularly thinking of Rob in the television adaptation of High Fidelity when I say this. When we finally hear our protagonist explain what he wished he could say to his love interest before he pushed her away, we instantly feel sad at his need to keep this to himself. I kept thinking, why did he keep his feelings from her? As she rightfully said he had been very open and honest with her up until that point, why then could he not tell her the truth about his fears? What was he trying to prove? Was he afraid that speaking about this would mean that his time was up and that the countdown until his dying days would then begin? What his socialisation as a man preventing him from being open and honest about his feelings because he feared coming off as “weak”?

Make no mistake, this is not a romance novel. This is a story that explores how fragile being in love is, how tender it is, and how events that happen in the world around us can impact our ability to love freely and fully. This novel explores how we are shaped by the people we love as well as the harsh realities of the world that we live in. By doing this I feel that the book calls the reader to reflect on their relationship with the world and to think about how it impedes our ability to love, as well as what choices we make to either overcome or submit to these impediments.

I found the theme of water in the novel interesting. The two lovers were described as moving towards each other or away from each other in the open water at various parts of the book. Our protagonist was also described as struggling to get his head above water at different points. I wonder what Nelson’s thought process was here.

Music is another character in this novel. The songs referenced often speak about the struggles of being black in a world that wants to destroy black bodies, and other feelings that our protagonist experiences. Lots of great artists and albums are featured; Blonde by Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Dizzie Rascal, A Tribe Called Quest. Not only is the prose written like a song – with the repetition of different sentences reading like a chorus – but our protagonist really feels the music at different intervals in the book. He sounds out the opening beats of “Fix Up, Look Sharp” the seminal rap song from Dizzie Rascal. Having played this song on repeat for most of my teen years I was instantly transported back to 2003. The focus on music in this novel is further highlighted by the official playlist that Viking (an imprint of Penguin Random House UK) has created for it on Spotify. This is a fantastic accompaniment that really helps the reader to understand the messages that mentions of these songs and albums leave at various intervals in the book.

The use of music is very interesting, and it doesn’t feel gratuitous. The different songs mentioned accentuate different moments of joy, grief, pain, sadness and tell us more about the experiences of the protagonist, and of black men more broadly as they try to navigate life. I was left thinking about the protagonist, and what would happen to him, long after I put my copy of this novel down. Sometimes, even now, I still think about him.

Rating – 4/5

Published by morethoughtsfromyaa

A millennial with far too many thoughts and opinions about books, film and tv which nobody asked for, but which are nonetheless much appreciated. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!

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