Caleb Azuma Nelson burst onto the literary scene with Open Water, an intimate love story that also looked at Being a young Black man in England. In his follow up, Small Worlds, he explores some of the same themes but goes a little wider. Although, as the name suggests he is still interested in the intimate, in the ‘small worlds’ that people and communities create for themselves. The book is a little historical, situated over three years starting in 2010 and focuses on the Ghanaian immigrant community in London.
When Small Worlds opens in 2010, its main character Stephen is close to finishing high school. Both he and childhood friend Del (for whom he has a bit of an unrequited crush) are in a band and hoping to get a scholarship to prestigious music school. Stephen, Del and their friends are part of a close Ghanaian community. Stephen’s parents both migrated to the UK in their twenties and his father wants more from him than a career in music, a tension that will impact on their relationship. Meanwhile Stephen and Del open up to each other, but much like the characters in Open Water, find maintaining a relationship in the face of other personal and social pressures a challenge.
Nelson is definitely striving for more in his second novel. He is still interested in some of the same things – the struggle of being a young Black man in Britain, the impact of broader social unrest, an obsession with the arts (in this case music). But he also brings in other threads through the story of Stephen’s parents – their struggles and the force of their expectations on Stephen and his brother Raymond – and the power, support and tribulations of the immigrant community. Although a little forced, Stephen’s trip back to Ghana reveals not only the deep abiding connections of the London community to their home but also a window into the history of the slave trade and the darker elements of Ghanaian history.
Once again, Nelson does all of this through descriptive, engaging and poetic prose. He effortlessly captures the beats and the rhythms of his characters and their different modes of expression – be it speech, music or dance – and in doing so draws readers into their worlds. And once again there is a Spotify playlist for all of the music referenced in the text. Small Worlds demonstrates Nelson’s continuing development as a writer – for his ability to probe and reveal but also celebrate a small but fascinating segment of British culture.