Given its slim size, the novel sometimes seems slightly crowded – not just with these enthusiastic references to black artists, but in other ways too. Alongside the main narrative, other topics fleetingly referred to include the difficulties of being a black person in a private school, curling at the Winter Olympics, the Notting Hill Carnival, basketball, Kierkegaard, the loss of grandparents ... This engaging breadth of interest might make us wish the book, at 176 pages, were a little longer to accommodate its investigative spirit. However, this range and the desire to record the variety of a particular black perspective demonstrate a key feature of Azumah Nelson’s work: his exciting ambition.
Told from the photographer’s point of view, the relationship is urgent and all-consuming, yet runs into trouble when the protagonist finds himself turning inward under the psychic stress of racism and his ever-present sense of imminent physical threat.
The wispy romance plot essentially serves as a peg for some vital reflections on art and society — which rather left me wondering if the publishing industry has cornered new writers into thinking that novels are the only game in town.
The biggest issue with Open Water is that it is too short on action for a novel. Most of the book sees the character reflecting in his head. It is a shame, as the small number of given scenes work really well to open up the book and let the reader dive into water along with the characters. Azumah Nelson is clearly a talented writer who may need further time to perfect the form. In the meantime, we have a worthy book, one that is both political and personal, that speaks its important message out to the world...