Open Water & Other Contemporary Novellas Read This Year (#NovNov)

Open Water is our first buddy read, for Contemporary week of Novellas in November (#NovNov). Look out for the giveaway running on Cathy’s blog today!

I read this one back in April–May and didn’t get a chance to revisit it, but I’ll chime in with my brief thoughts recorded at the time. I then take a look back at 14 other novellas I’ve read this year; many of them I originally reviewed here. I also have several more contemporary novellas on the go to round up before the end of the month.


Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)

[145 pages]

I always enjoy the use of second person narration, and it works pretty well in this love story between two young Black British people in South London. The title is a metaphor for the possibilities and fear of intimacy. The protagonist, a photographer, doesn’t know what to do with his anger about how young Black men are treated. I felt Nelson was a little heavy-handed in his treatment of this theme, though I did love that the pivotal scene is set in a barbershop, a place where men reveal more of themselves than usual – I was reminded of a terrific play I saw a few years ago, Barber Shop Chronicles.

Ultimately, I wasn’t convinced that fiction was the right vehicle for this story, especially with all the references to other authors, from Hanif Abdurraqib to Zadie Smith (NW, in particular); I think a memoir with cultural criticism was what the author really intended. I’ll keep an eye out for Nelson, though – I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes it onto the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist in January. I feel like with his next book he might truly find his voice.


Other reviews:


Other Contemporary Novellas Read This Year:

(Post-1980; under 200 pages)


Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Indelicacy by Amina Cain

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies


Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths

Tinkers by Paul Harding


An Island by Karen Jennings

Ness by Robert Macfarlane

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan


Broke City by Wendy McGrath

A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez

In the Winter Dark by Tim Winton


Currently reading:

  • Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner
  • My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
  • The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici


What novellas do you have underway this month? Have you read any of my selections?

29 responses

  1. I’ve just read Assembly and rather loved it. Review coming up soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t keen but I know I’m an outlier on that one. I’d expect it and/or Open Water to be on the Young Writer shortlist.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I loved Open Water, got really swept up in the emotion of young love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s certainly not your average romance novel!


  3. We had similar opinions on Open Water which didn’t really work for me, although there were parts of it I really admired.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, we picked up on a lot of the same things (whew, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one underwhelmed!), though you went into a lot more depth and gave it a really fair critique. I hope others doing the buddy read will enjoy it more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was a strange one. There were parts of it I REALLY liked and parts of it I just didn’t. I think there was a great non-fiction book in the style of Cole in there.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Teju Cole is a good comparison; I love his stuff, fiction and non-.


  4. […] Open Water & Other Contemporary Novellas Read this Year (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]


  5. Thanks for linking to my review (also written in the second person!). I have also read Assembly, as I seem to only read Millennial novels if they also have a protagonist of Global Majority People heritage (and Queenie’s still the best one!). I have started my Novellas in November with books published in 1863, 1927 and 1931 so am definitely ignoring the brief and going my own sweet way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s no problem, I’m reading from all four themed weeks at the moment and will probably end up doing various mixed roundups.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Open Water & Other Contemporary Novellas Read This Year […]


  7. I am not quite done Open Water yet, but yeah… the 2nd person narration doesn’t bother me, but the unevenness and tendacy to get heavy handed and overwrought do. But, around the middle, I was surprised to get pretty emotional in some parts. So something about it works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s rare to sense genuine emotion from young men, instead of tough posturing!


  8. Oh and I missed your review of Broken City, that’s a local author for me! Off to read…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That final book in the trilogy was the one that stood out to me. I read it in one sitting.


  9. The only one of the novellas you list here – Black Dogs, which I enjoyed several years ago now. It sticks in my memory for the period in Berlin when the Wall came down, and also for the different perspectives the characters had on the events in their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It felt dated to me; I imagine it had a lot more power when it was first published and memories of the Wall coming down were still fresh.


  10. I just finished Somebody Loves You and I think I liked it more than you did. My review will be up soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I focused on the positives for Foreword: they gave the book a star based on my review!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Tinkers is on my list to read this month – I’m sort of expecting it to be a 3 star read for me already, so I’ll see if I agree with you! I would give Black Dogs more, though – I think it’s my favourite McEwan (though Amsterdam was really good).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had hoped to love Tinkers more based on the setup. Black Dogs was one where I felt like I needed to be closer in time to the main events, or to know more context. I’ve most enjoyed Enduring Love, Saturday and Nutshell.


  12. You’re currently reading My Monticello! I have that on my TBR and was thinking about using one of my Audible credits to get it on audiobook. I heard it is fantastic on audiobook! Are you reading it in print or audio?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never listened to an audiobook. I have this one on my Kindle from Edelweiss.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. As I’ve mentioned on Cathy’s post, I ended up really enjoying this one. One of the most powerful aspects, for me, was the way that aspects of the story are echoed in the books/music/film/essayists that the two of them discuss. I absolutely love the way that it IS a love story, but it’s also a story of how they are constructing themselves (which is often what either makes a love affair so tragic or so moving and thrilling). It’s as though they are recreating the works that matter most to them, in their own lives, like they’ve been given that opportunity through other writers/singers/filmmakers etc. For me, those scenes felt short and pertinent and powerful, but not heavy-handed; but I have read more than a dozen books of essays and non-fiction on the subject in the past year+, so I have come across some very blatant treatment of these themes and maybe that shifted the framework for me (i.e. just their being fictional could have introduced a sense of their being indirect, rather than memoir and personal experience). ANYway, I feel like I could go on and on, because I was a little surprised to have felt such a kinship with it, but I’ll zip my lip cuz sometimes that can be annoying when you’ve not felt that connection yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for joining in on the buddy read! I’m glad you got more out of it than either sheepish hostess did 😉


      1. Thanks for the encouragement to read it! I suspect it’s rather like reading Shakespeare without the footnotes, there are a lot of allusions, echoes of other cultural works (which he’s id’ed for readers, as part of the young couple’s meaning-of-life convo’s), and the few that I knew myself added greatly to my appreciation/enjoyment of how he’s structured and arranged these short chapters. I’ve got some other contemporary novellas in mind…we’ll see how I do with those!


      2. His influences are clear — especially Zadie Smith’s NW (the one of her novels I haven’t been able to get through!).

        I’ve still got loads of contemporary novellas on the go that I’ll have to round up later in the month.


  14. […] 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… […]


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