“It’s One Thing to Be Looked At, and Another to Be Seen.” Reviewing Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson 

Winner of the debut novel of the year at the British Book Awards 2022, Open Water is Caleb Azumah Nelson’s mesmerizing first novel. 

Winner of the debut novel of the year at the British Book Awards 2022, Open Water is Caleb Azumah Nelson’s mesmerizing first novel. 

Making waves since its publication in 2021, this achingly beautiful story is about two Black artists who fall in love against a backdrop of music, politics and race. Uniquely written in second-person perspective – a bold choice for any author – it follows two nameless protagonists in the throes of love, encapsulating every nuance, painful truth and vulnerability between this will-they-won’t they couple, while offering an unvarnished commentary on the realities of systemic racism. 

“What is better than believing you are heading towards love?” 

Effortlessly lyrical, Open Water is a joy to experience, whether reading or listening along, and an essential work of art from an exciting new voice in British fiction. 

Keep scrolling to read the team’s reviews for this month’s book club pick! 

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. 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 – trying to make their mark in a city 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.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

Lareese says…

What a debut. This book is a masterpiece and I will not hear any different. It is a story-telling feat! The second person present tense (‘you’) might throw a few readers off initially, but I very much enjoyed it and thought it was the perfect voice to tell this intimate yet unconventional love story. The prose is ethereal, painterly and raw, deftly articulating the heat and delirium of young love whilst exploring hard-hitting themes of racism, police brutality and trauma. Slim in size but huge in heart, it’s a book I will continue to harp on about until every one of my pals has read it. Caleb is a unique and exciting new voice in fiction and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next. For the second-person POV naysayers, allow Caleb to respectfully prove you wrong.

Would you recommend? Get in, the water’s lovely!
Rating: 5/5

Charlotte says…

I love a short read thrown into my reading mix every now and then as a chronically slow reader, and Open Water makes for the perfect summer read when schedules are busy but you still want an addictive book to return to in your quieter moments.

I always find it super intriguing reading an author’s debut novel, and in this case it’s almost unbelievable that Caleb hasn’t been published before! Open Water is a beautiful, poetic and honest tale of forbidden love, after two young Black artists (one a photographer and one a dancer) meet, become friends and finally fall in love. Written so poetically it feels at times like song lyrics, Open Water explores delicate love against the harsh backdrop of racist London and the inescapable dangers and pain this brings.

The second-person perspective is a little difficult to get into at times, and despite the book being short definitely required a level of concentration, but regardless was worth the persistence for its at times devastating yet consistently beautiful exploration of honest, profound love.

Intense and impactful, this book is a must-read.

Would you recommend it? Absolutely!
Rating: 4/5

Danielle says…

This was such an incredible read, like nothing I’ve ever read before. I absolutely LOVED the takeover Caleb did on our IG account, he had such a great vibe, a born storyteller. What makes Open Water so interesting is that it’s written in the 2nd person making you really visualise what’s happening to the protagonist which, as it happens, is a young black male Londoner, all of which I am not. A character I probably wouldn’t have found myself relating to if the book had not been written in the 2nd person, completely changes the way you feel when reading it.

The words and sentence structure throughout the book are simply exquisite, I’d be doing the book a disservice trying to explain just how beautiful it is written. I think I’ll always remember how this book made me feel, completely taking me out of my life. Read it, it’ll change you.

Would you recommend it? Please read it!
Rating: 5/5

Darcey says…

A poetic, short but impactful read, wow what a debut novel from Caleb! I don’t believe I have ever read a book in the second person perspective and I was unsure how easy I would find it to read, but it really complimented the flow of the book and it was a really interesting way to read the unfolding of a romantic relationship.

Such an intimate read which feels incredibly poetic, exploring the relationship of two young black artists who struggle to feel as if they fit in in a city that celebrates them but rejects them at the same time. A deeply moving read, Caleb covers themes of racism, trauma, police brutality, friendship, love and hope. One of the best debut novels I think I’ve ever read, I cannot wait to see what Caleb does next!

Would you recommend it? Yes
Rating: 4.5/5