Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson: A place of safety and love

Cover image for Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah NelsonI finally got around to reading Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Costa First Novel Prize-winning Open Water just before putting my hand up for a copy of Small Worlds. Like many bloggers I follow, I was very taken with it. Hard to imagine that Small Worlds would be better but, for me, it was. Beginning in 2010, Nelson’s novel is a beautiful, eloquent exploration of love, loss and finding a place of safety for a person of colour in a white world which follows Stephen, the youngest son of a Ghanaian couple living in Peckham.

I gaze at my parents, and see that a world can be two people, occupying a space where they don’t have to explain. Where they can feel beautiful. Where they might feel free.

In limbo between leaving school and waiting for his A level results, Stephen spends a glorious summer dancing, playing music with friends and working at Auntie Yaa’s shop where Ghanaians buy food so evocative of home, while waiting and hoping for news of the scholarship which will fund his university place. He and Del have been each other’s best friend for over a decade during which Stephen has fallen in love with her, afraid to make the first move and afraid that someone else will. Their plan is to study music together: Stephen is a trumpet player, Del plays double bass when she’s not DJing. Stephen’s father sees only an insecure future for his son despite his own youthful dreams of opening a bar where Ghanaians can build their own place of safety, dreams Stephen has himself. When his results arrive, Stephen’s plans are thrown into disarray and new ones must be made. His choices will eventually lead to a chasm opening between himself and his father. Over the next two years, all their lives will change against a background of race relations made incendiary by injustice and bungling.

The memories come back in a rush: our tiny histories, our brief intimacies, this small world.  

From its first sentence, Nelson’s novel unfolds in gorgeously rhythmic prose, repeated phrases echoing Stephen’s story so similar to his father’s which is told towards the end of the book. Themes of family, loss, grief and home run through it with racism a constant background hum. Characters retreat into ‘small worlds’, safe harbours of community, familiarity and love with faith, music, dance and particularly food a comfort in a harsh world. Nelson’s writing is wonderfully evocative, heartrending in its depiction of the aching sadness of grief and the damage done by fear and disappointment. He writes with such poignant tenderness for these characters they feel like family. It ends with hope, at least for Stephen and for his father. Such a moving, quietly heartfelt and accomplished novel, it’ll be on my books of the year list for sure, not to mention my Booker wish list.

Viking: London 9780241574348 240 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

29 thoughts on “Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson: A place of safety and love”

    1. Another excellent sounding title. Those small worlds, or little support systems are play such a significant role when everything outside is unsettling and difficult to cope with.

  1. Reserved from the library forthwith. It must be well regarded. Our library service has no fewer than 19 copies available: and they all seem to be on loan!

  2. This sounds wonderful. I was delighted to find a copy of Open Water at the weekend, so I’m hoping to include it in my month of novellas soon. His writing does sound so lyrical and clear.

  3. I am really drawn to this novel. I haven’t read the author’s previous novel either, but keep hearing such good things about both of them.

  4. I read Jacqui’s review on this book and was intrigued, yours has intrigued me even more. Sounds like a must read book, very accomplished. Lovely review.

  5. Lovely review, Susan, and I’m really you liked this one. So many echoes and reflections in this novel, he uses repetition very well.
    I’m interested to see where he goes next, e.g. will he continue in a similar vein or branch out into different, perhaps more ambitious territory? I sort of hope it’s the latter without losing some of the intimacy of these first two books.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. I loved the musicality of his use of language. I agree with you about the direction he chooses to go next. Hard, though, when the first two novels have met with such acclaim.

  6. Open Water was a book club pick and I struggled with it partly because of it being written in the second person and partly because I found some of the prose too lush but this one appeals to me more.

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