Lead Review

  • Book: Open Water
  • Location: London
  • Author: Caleb Azumah Nelson

Review Author: Tina Hartas



This is the second novel that I have read consecutively where the second person narrative is used and I am not convinced by it – yet. It is I guess a device to draw the reader in, peer over the shoulder of the author but can sometimes have the opposite effect and feel a little distancing, I find. That notwithstanding this novel is a heartfelt and poetic story of the nameless narrator, who shares the experience of being a black young man in South East London – mainly Catford. The vehicle, that he uses at the heart of the book for sharing his experience, is a burgeoning friendship between the narrator and a young woman, both of whom remain nameless. He is a photographer, she a dancer.

He meets her when she is already in a relationship and she understands that this new friendship is worth pursuing, and so they begin to hang out together, quite coyly at first, very respectful of their mutual needs until they have a secure platform on which to build something further. The author beautifully builds the relationship like a pas de deux, a graceful, blossoming togetherness. As the seasons change so does the rhythm of their relationship.

The author highlights life as he experiences it, the snubs, racist slurs and the ingrained and conditioned fear that rises when a police siren screams along. He is more likely to be a target because of who he is, prejudice accosts him on virtually a daily basis, and vigilance, he has come to understand, is essential. It is sobering to hear first hand some of the trials which face him in everyday life.

There is a great encounter with his barber and a darker period when there is considerable loss for him, the point at which he closes down emotionally. This inevitably impacts the trajectory of the burgeoning relationship.

London is the rumbling backdrop to his story, as his characters rendezvous, eat and seek out their entertainment. Uber taxis feature large, as the characters zip back and forth across the southern reaches and into the centre (I got quite cross with the character, who at one point ordered an Uber and then got engrossed in what he was doing and ignored the driver’s attempts to get in touch; the driver presumable eventually drove off without his fare – bad form! 😠)

The poetic style is really quite beautiful, However, I listened to this as an audiobook where the author himself narrates the book. I think Azuma Nelson was not the ideal candidate to read his own work. It was like listening to poetry for a good 4 1/2 hours, there is no undulation and it could feel quite lugubrious.  Many people find audiobooks hard to listen to and claim they fall asleep at the best of times. To be honest the monotone of his voice felt at times quite soporific and I could only listen to it when I was actively on a walk, otherwise I risked my eyes closing and my attention straying.

So if you are tempted by this book, I suggest you read it rather than acquire the audiobook.

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