book review: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson




OPEN WATER by Caleb Azumah Nelson
★★★★★
Viking, February 4, 2021


“To be you is to apologize and often that apology comes in the form of suppression. That suppression is indiscriminate. That suppression knows not when it will spill. What you’re trying to say is that it’s easier for you to hide in your own darkness, than energy cloaked in your own vulnerability. Not better, but easier. However, the longer you hold it in, the more likely you are to suffocate. At some point, you must breathe.”

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut, a slim volume just under 150 pages, blew me away. I’m inherently skeptical of second-person narration; I find it particularly tricky to do effectively and with real purpose, so when I started reading it was with a slight apprehension, but Azumah Nelson won my trust effortlessly. His writing is absorbing and gorgeous, the bond between character and reader sealed by the author’s choice to frame reader as protagonist, a choice that has the potential to fall flat but which instead is elevated by Azumah Nelson’s sharp commentary on sight and observation. 

This probably sounds like an off the wall comparison but Open Water is a bit like James Baldwin meets Sally Rooney. It has that tender, push-and-pull, will-they-won’t-they quality of Normal People but it’s also heavier; the stakes are higher; it’s not a book generically about young love but instead specifically about young Black love, and the cost of systemic racism on Black love and Black bodies. It’s a gentle, supple story, joyous and heart-rending and intimate.

26-year-old Caleb Azumah Nelson is an author to watch. Calling it now, whatever he writes next will be shortlisted for the Booker.


Thank you to Netgalley and to Viking for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

14 thoughts on “book review: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

    • I do too when done well!!! I’m always more apprehensive when it’s in debuts or books by authors I don’t know as well but he knocked it out of the park.

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  1. Don’t think this one will be longlisted? Too short?
    And isn’t Normal People pretty specific to Irish people who go to Trinity College (as per Barry Pierce’s recent article) 🙂

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  2. I don’t have anything again second person theoretically but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done well for the space of an entire novel. Intrigued by this one!

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    • I’ve seen it used most successfully in memoirs by Paul Auster and Carmen Maria Machado. True, it’s usually just as one POV in a novel, or in one or a few stories of a collection. Two novels that kept it up all the way through and I thought really worked were Bloomland by John Englehardt and Layla by Nina de la Mer.

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