Novellas in November: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is the contemporary novellas pick for Novellas in November. Please read Cathy’s review, which I largely concur with, and Rebecca’s review, in which she suggests Normal People as a “readalike” (I can’t comment… yet). Liz also wrote an insightful review earlier this year. All four of us are a little uncertain about this very Millennial (or possibly Gen Z!) novel…

It wasn’t the second person, present tense narration. It wasn’t the poetic prose and repeated metaphors. It wasn’t the constant pop culture references (the Spotify playlist is great!). But something about this story of young love and struggle didn’t quite land with me.

Perhaps I was indoctrinated by the He’s Just Not That Into You craze of the the mid-aughts, and that’s what makes me resist the idea that a man can still love you, but be too sad, too angry, too traumatized, too fucked up to be with you. That’s it’s not your fault and not his fault. Though their relationship does follow the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus script pretty closely; the male narrator is totally “retreating into the cave” while his girlfriend is lashing out because her needs aren’t being met.

Of course I (and those popular relationship books) are approaching this from a place of privilege, where there isn’t a layer of displacement and racism to consider on top of the gender dynamics. That’s what Open Water is really about, the intersection (to put it in the slightly academic terms Nelson favours) between love and and freedom and fear.

You know what it was? This didn’t feel like a novella. It felt too short in places, relationships and family dynamics skimmed over, while in others, there was too much build up, the dialogue and interactions between the lovers overwrought and over-examined. (See my comment on Cathy’s review for how I really felt about the build up.)

I would have almost preferred a Zadie Smith-style world with multiple perspectives and voices, or, an even more pared down day-in-the-life view of the young lovers navigating the city.

The love story wasn’t completely lost on me. It broke though my skepticism a few times, but mostly at the end when I put together the clues in the dedication, acknowledgments, and the author’s Instagram to see what really happened next.

It feels condescending to say I can’t wait to see what this author does next, but it’s true. This didn’t work for me, but I never got the sense that the author was sloppy or didn’t consider the tone and form of his work.



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  4. Liz Dexter

    Thank you for the mention and link! And yes, indeed. It was about three books in one – a romance I wouldn’t have bothered with (too young for me to care any more? I hope not!), a brilliant exposition of exactly what it’s like to be a young Black man in London, and an essay about cultural references he has loved that looked like showing off or name-dropping in the context of the novel. But I too will be looking for what he does next.

    I didn’t follow up what happened next to the romance on Insta etc – good work!

  5. annelogan17

    I know what you mean about one author’s book not quite landing, but still being excited to see what they right next. Perhaps the novella isn’t the right form for this writer? Sounds like they need a novel to get all their thoughts out 🙂

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