An illustration of two people looking at the moon
An illustration of two people looking at the moon

Love as the things I’ve always seen: my parents and their late night gatherings and their slow jams, their Marvin and Teddy and Luther, their off-pitch adlibs and slick two-steps, their small world, their private ecstasy. Love as a pull and a tug. Love like meeting for the first time as teenagers and it feeling more like a reunion. Love in the smile as they remember.

Love as the things I didn’t see but have been told: my parents in their teenage years. It would be the weekend and someone would have access to a van, so there would be plots and plans for a trip to Labadi beach. There would be eight, ten, twelve of them, crammed in a van, music pounding from a boombox, heading for that point where sand meets water, where freedom might be found in the shock of the first lap of water on bare feet. Where you might wade in or not. Where you might know that the person whose gaze you keep catching is the man or woman you will love, or not. Where you could stand next to another and gaze out to sea, feeling that the world wasn’t so small after all.

So maybe love as time spent. Or the way we see at each other. Or both. I’m thinking of my Grandma, on my last trip to Ghana, who on Sundays, after church, would take up a position in one of two armchairs in the living room. She spent that time in a contemplative silence, gazing up at the wall every few minutes, where a photo of my Grandfather was mounted. I didn’t know him – he passed just before I was born – but in a way I did, because something of their love stayed on, in the way my Grandma gazed at that photo, in the way my parents see each other, in the way they see me.                

Love as the first time you can feel it, in that strange period of limbo in your early twenties, just out of university, or just starting work. You meet someone at a gathering and get to talking, and it’s easy. Maybe it takes you a drink or two to pluck up the courage to ask them out. Maybe they’ll smile in relief, because they feel what you do. And it’s far too early to call it love but there’s no denying a feeling.

Love as discovering that community can mean two people, building a small world for each other. Lost in a private ecstasy. That’s what it feels like, right? That rush of a text message or phone call, the little jolt you get when you see them approach, that smile you don’t know you’re wearing. How wonderful and gorgeous it is to go towards someone in this way.

Love as the clumsy bump of noses in a first kiss. The second more sure, the third even more so. Love as a distance closed. As a small world growing smaller, and somehow expanding, housing the infinite possibilities between two people.

Love as seeing. Love as the way you see them and the way they see you: seeing it all, everything you want to be, everything you could be, everything you are. Love as the way you see each other. Or maybe as time spent. Or both. Like, when seated at a restaurant, glasses empty but your stomachs full, all attention towards the jazz singer performing with the guitarist, your hand slides over theirs. Your gazes meet and it’s just you two, wonderful and gorgeous, in your small world.

I often think of love as a song. As improvisation. Off-pitch adlibs and slick two-steps, Marvin and Teddy and Luther, maybe some Bill Withers too. As two people who meet as strangers and it’s more like a reunion. As a tug and pull. Love as seeing. Love like some magic which shouldn’t be questioned. Love as whole and beautiful and true, that wonderful feeling of going towards someone, of being vulnerable and doing it anyway. Love as trust. As knowing that even if your hearts were to break away from each other, the small world you created together will always exist. Love as knowing you will always love, will always have loved; that the song is something you might not hear often, but when you do, it might give you a little smile you don’t know you’re wearing.

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

  • Open Water

  • 'A tender and touching love story, beautifully told' Observer 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2021

    'A beautiful and powerful novel about the true and sometimes painful depths of love' Candice Carty-Williams, bestselling author of QUEENIE

    'An unforgettable debut... it's Sally Rooney meets Michaela Coel meets Teju Cole' New York Times

    'A love song to Black art and thought' Yaa Gyasi, bestselling author of HOMEGOING and TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM

    Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists - he a photographer, she a dancer - trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

    At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

    'An amazing debut novel. You should read this book. Let's hear it for Caleb Azumah Nelson, also known as the future' Benjamin Zephaniah

    'A very touching and heartfelt book' Diana Evans, award-winning author of ORDINARY PEOPLE

    'A lyrical modern love story, brilliant on music and art, race and London life, I enjoyed it hugely' David Nicholls, author of ONE DAY and SWEET SORROW

    'Caleb is a star in the making' Nikesh Shukla, editor of THE GOOD IMMIGRANT and BROWN BABY

    'A stunning piece of art' Bolu Babalola, bestselling author of LOVE IN COLOUR

    'For those that are missing the tentative depiction of love in Normal People, Caleb Azumah Nelson's Open Water is set to become one of 2021's unmissable books. Utterly transporting, it'll leave you weeping and in awe.' Stylist

    An exhilarating new voice in British fiction' Vogue

    A poetic novel about Black identity and first love in the capital from one of Britain's most exciting young voices' Harper's Bazaar

    'An intense, elegant debut' Guardian


  • Buy the book

Read more

We use cookies on this site to enable certain parts of the site to function and to collect information about your use of the site so that we can improve our visitors’ experience.

For more on our cookies and changing your settings click here

Strictly Necessary


Preferences & Features

Targeting / Advertising