Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

An intimate and vulnerable debut novel

Hana Makhlouf


Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Let me preface this by saying that this has to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life. Throughout this review, I will be sharing some of my favourite excerpts from the book.


Open water is British-Ghanian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel (emphasis on debut). It follows 2 main characters as they cross paths and become entangled in each other’s lives.

We follow the main characters as they share their experiences growing up as Black in London. ‘Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists…’ — all similarities that bring them together.

Their friendship grows and evolves, but with that comes challenges of opening up, dealing with their own trauma and making the choice of whether to continue or walk away.

“You know that to love is both to swim and to drown. You know to love is to be a whole, partial, a joint, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and heal. It is to be in the world, honest. It is to place someone next to your beating heart, in the absolute darkness of your inner, and trust they will hold you close. To love is to trust, to trust is to have faith. How else are you meant to love? You knew what you were getting into, but taking the Underground, returning home with no certainty of when you will see her next, it is terrifying.”

What I liked

We, the readers, watch all the above events and progressions unfold from a second-person narrative. The second-person narrative adds a strange sense of nostalgia. Looking back, it almost felt like the scenes were hazy, like an old film.

Whilst some of the main themes of the novel are friendship, relationship and the modern-day transition between both (a situationship?), I really appreciated how Caleb delved into the male character’s feelings and emotions and focused on that. It is uncommon to find a novel that shows the vulnerable side of a man — especially a black man.

“You ache. You ache all over. You are aching to be you, but you’re scared of what it means to do so.”



Hana Makhlouf

Software engineer by day. Passionate about everything tech, reading and self-development👩🏽‍💻