Caleb Azumah Nelson’s second novel is intimate poetry, burrowing deep into the worlds created and shared with those around us.
Small Worlds depicts events, small and large, from three formative years in the youth of an aspiring musician from Peckham named Stephen. It explores the numerous worlds within and surrounding him, his Ghanaian parents and his older brother Raymond; the spaces shared with his best friend Adeline; the worlds created on the football field, at church and over a shared meal; the spaces too that are filled by music and are left open by music for us to fill.
As the story opens, Stephen is 18 and finishing school, “on the cusp of something – not quite adulthood, but that place between, where anything seems possible”. It’s that liminal space between your school days and a bigger, scarier future; that time when people, and indeed your own feelings and intentions, are shifting, just like his relationship with Adeline, a schoolmate with potential to be something more, although it’s never that simple or linear.
READ MORE: Champions – Blu-ray Review
“What happens to those who don’t have the room to express their ache, are unable to tell their stories? What happens to these histories which might only be spoken?”
In part two, Stephen starts at and drops out of university, meets different people and finds life at parties, becomes an uncle and discovers new spaces in which to be and thrive. His relationships shift further in the closing section, which among other things sees a return to his family’s native Ghana and a death in the family.
With a rhythm to its descriptions and narration, Small Worlds is pulled along with urgent guiding thrusts; the language goes on a journey even as Stephen navigates the unknown landscape of youth. Lines and phrases recur like feelings, like a note or motif in a song. We shift quickly from scene to scene with little interstitial diversion, just as life flits from moment to moment or your memory of long-ago events skips over the bits in between.
READ MORE: Star Trek: Defiant #4 – Comic Review
Food and family are at the fore. Stephen’s relationship with his mother is responsive and warm; his relationship with his father is strained, distant. It’s only at the climax that there comes a new understanding for Stephen and something of a refresh for the pair.
“I’ve only known myself in song, in the space between the sounds we make to capture our quiet.”
This is also a novel partly told through music, which imbues its pages and fills the gaps between words. Characters listen to, dance to and play music; the names of works and artists are sprinkled liberally throughout. Music is always around.
READ MORE: Inland – Film Review
As in Azumah Nelson’s debut, Open Water, the story gathers together vignettes that are fabricated but feel real and closely resemble the truth in flavour if not in form. The ending comes perhaps a little too quickly, the story stops perhaps before you wish it would; but in many ways life is precisely as unclean, unfinished.
Small Worlds is a love story, a meditation on family and connections, a coming of age tale, a treatise on music’s pull and power, and more besides. Novels from Azumah Nelson, although so far only two, are golden things, shining and bright.
Small Worlds is out now from Viking.