A couple of years ago, I read and loved Open Water, the debut novel by the British-Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson. It’s a beautiful, lyrical book – at once both a tender love story and a searing insight into what it feels like to be young, black and male in South London. There’s more of that gorgeous, lyrical writing in Small Worlds, a tender, beautifully-crafted story of love, family, music, dance, food, identity, belonging and grief. But perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a book about the small worlds we create for ourselves that help us navigate the larger, more uncertain one around us, the spaces where we can feel beautiful and free.
Second novels can be tricky to pull off, especially when a critically-acclaimed debut sets such a high bar for the books that follow. Nevertheless, fans of Open Water can rest easy at this point. Small Worlds more than lives up to the promise of Azumah Nelson’s debut; if anything, I think it feels more ‘together’ if that makes sense, more accomplished and assured.
The novel follows the narrator, a young British-Ghanaian man named Stephen, over three consecutive summers, each of which feels pivotal to his personal development. At eighteen, Stephen is on the cusp of young adulthood, that time when the world seems full of possibilities, when everything is still ahead of him, and the future seems both exciting and uncertain.
As the first summer unfolds, we see Stephen edging closer to Del, a girl he has been friends with for years, the two teenagers sharing a deep love of music and the communal language it creates. Azumah Nelson perfectly captures the uncertainties of young love, that strange sense of being in limbo when you don’t quite know how the other person feels about you, even though you seem sure of your feelings for them. Nevertheless, as the days and weeks pass, the pair become lovers, only to be separated in the autumn as their paths diverge. While Del stays in London to study music at university, Stephen must settle for a business course in Nottingham when he fails to get the grades to follow Del.
By the second summer, Stephen has dropped out of uni, having struggled with loneliness and depression during the separation from his family and Del, the small worlds where he could express himself and be free. Much to his father’s disappointment, Stephen is working at a local restaurant, learning his craft from the supportive owner, Femi, who takes time to pass on his culinary knowledge and skills.
Having split acrimoniously from Del the previous autumn, Stephen slips into a brief fling with Annie, whose family also hails from Ghana. With Annie, Stephen starts to feel open again, experiencing a kind of freedom he hasn’t felt for nearly a year. But despite their ease with one another, the mutual language and rhythms they share, the relationship ends when Annie leaves to go travelling to explore her family’s roots. Nevertheless, before this second summer is out, there is another surprise in store for Stephen when he bumps into Del, rekindling mutual feelings of love and the heady days of the past.
The third summer sees Stephen trying to rebuild the fractured relationship with his father while also dealing with losing a loved one and the emptiness this creates. In a flashback to the 1980s, we follow Stephen’s parents as they travel to England in search of a better life, only to find that opportunities are few and far between in London, especially for people of colour. It’s probably the most moving section of the book, especially for those of us that have experienced profound loss and grief.
Azumah Nelson has crafted a truly gorgeous novel here, a touching exploration of love in its various forms and manifestations. There’s the love between friends and how these emotions deepen when friends become lovers; the love between parents and children and other family members; and the love we have for the various cultural bonds that unite us – for instance, a mutual love of music, dance or food, each of which creates its own language and shared sense of experience.
I also love how Azumah Nelson uses repetition throughout the novel, circling back to specific concepts, phrases or gestures which act as emotional touchstones as Stephen’s story unfolds. In some instances, certain words or actions are repeated (e.g. a hand brushing against a partner’s hand or the way light falls on someone’s neck); while in others, there’s a variation in emphasis, like a riff on a familiar theme. It’s a technique that ties in so well with the novel’s sense of poetry and musicality, creating echoes and reverberations that deepen the emotional resonances for the reader.
A great example of this is the relationship between remembering and forgetting. At times, we want to forget things because they feel painful (e.g. ‘Right now, I don’t want to remember. I only want to forget’), while at other times, the emphasis shifts to remembering because we want something to endure (e.g. ‘Sure you’ll remember me?’ […] ‘How could I forget’). Other themes that Azumah Nelson continues to revisit include: the link between solitude and loneliness, which ultimately feeds depression; the sense of feeling trapped between a desire to cry and the inability to do so; and the need to ‘lean into’ life’s uncertainties, especially to access new possibilities.
Azumah Nelson also excels at portraying the most fleeting of moments with genuine tenderness and grace – a palm resting on a lover’s chest or a hand grazing another hand as two people edge closer to one another.
Moreover, the novel is shot through with a deep love of music, dance and food. In many respects, Stephen only knows himself through music – both his connection with the trumpet, which he plays, sometimes jamming with friends, and his love of various performers from John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Jay-Z and The Delfonics. For Stephen and his friends, dancing can be a route to solving problems, even if it only provides a temporary release, a brief escape from the pressures of life.
Azumah Nelson writes so beautifully about music, the rhythms it creates and the emotions it evokes. Similarly, with food, he illustrates how cooking (and eating) a familiar dish can provide comfort, tapping into memories of loved ones, special moments and thoughts of home. The novel’s vivid sense of place also comes through very strongly, imbued as it is with the sights and sounds of Peckham – fans of the recent films Rye Lane (by Raine Allen Miller) and Lovers Rock (by Steve McQueen) will find much that resonates here.
In summary, then, Small Worlds is a tender, heartfelt novel exploring the bonds that unite us and the barriers that can push us apart. At heart though, the story highlights the small worlds we create for ourselves, the shared intimacies and friendships that help us to traverse the larger world around us, the spaces where we can breathe and feel free. It’s a gorgeous, sensual novel, like a balm for the soul.
Small Worlds is published by Viking on 11th May; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing an early proof copy.
Like you, I loved his debut novel so have been waiting for this one. So pleased to hear it lives up to the promise!
I think it more than delivers on the promise of Open Water without the loss of any that novel’s strengths (e.g. the gorgeous, poetic prose style and the blend of different themes). So while it’s recognisably the work of the same author, there’s a clear sense of progression here – a maturity and a sense of cohesion which make Small Worlds feel like up step up from Azumah Nelson’s debut.
I love the sound of this, and the fact that its exploration isn’t restricted to one kind of love but the various kinds that make up a person–whether its for other humans or for music or food!
Yes, that aspect really resonated with me. Without wishing to sound happy-clappy about this one, it’s great to see different types of love being explored and celebrated in this way.
Skimmed your review as I’ll be writing my own soon. Suffice to say I loved it, too, even more so than Open Water.
Excellent, Susan, really pleased to hear you loved it too. It’s a mystery to me that he wasn’t named as one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists recently. He seemed like a slam dunk to me…
Don’t know this author at all but this book sounds wonderful. I love books where music is woven into the lives of the characters.
His debut, Open Water, won the best first novel prize at the (recently defunct) Costas a few years ago, and he’s been hot property over here ever since. The music element feels integral to this book, a fundamental part of these characters’ day-to-day lives – the lifeblood of their existence, so to speak.
Oh Jacqui, this sounds wonderful. I haven’t read his debut, though it has been in my peripheral literary vision for some time. Right from your opening words, I thought this sounds like one for me:
“the small worlds we create for ourselves that help us navigate the larger, more uncertain one around us, the spaces where we can feel beautiful and free.”
A beautiful, resonant review, adding it to the wish list for sure.
Ah, thank you, Claire! I’m so glad you like the sound of this one. It’s so beautifully written, and the tender, poetic qualities of Azumah Nelson’s prose feel right up your street. The ‘small worlds’ concept (as you’ve highlighted in your comment) is central to this novel, like a touchstone Azumah Nelson returns to again and again.
Wonderful post, Jacqui, and you really pull out the different strands of the book. I totally love the concept of the small worlds we build around us to survive – so true, and my current read has a variation of the same kind of thing (although in a very different setting). The fact that the book also explores more than just the relationships between lovers is good too – our lives are built up of so many different connections.
Thanks, Karen. I think there’s something universal about the ‘small worlds’ concept that may of us will recognise – the need to retreat or escape into these smaller (more manageable?) spaces every now and again as a way of coping with the wider world and all its challenges/complexities. It’s a recurring theme throughout the book, which gives it a kind of musicality, like a familiar chorus or melody.
(PS I think I know which current read you’re talking about from some of your recent tweets. If it’s the book I’m thinking of (Jeremy Cooper’s Brian?), it sounds right up my street!
Spot on! I’ve finished and loved Brian and I think it is absolutely something you should read!!!!
Well, given that I spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in a darkened room with a projector whirring away in the background, it does seem tailor-made for me! The BFI is lovely, and I often go there in the afternoon/early evening if I happen to be in London for something else. It’s probably my favourite cinema, with the Curzon Mayfair a close second!
It’s a very *you* book, Jacqui – the combination of a big focus on film mixed with a clever and subtle narrative I think would make it ideal for you! Haven’t been to the BFI for decades, but the South Bank is a favourite place in London, so I did enjoy the setting of Brian which does feature that too!
Lovely! Very much much looking forward to your review of it… :)
Beautiful review Jacqui. This sounds a stunning read, such artistry but in a way that pulls the reader in rather than distancing. I really must get to this author!
I think you’d like him a lot, Madame bibi. And being a Londoner, you may well be familiar with the settings – always a bonus with stories like this as they feel rooted in their communities. :)
I haven’t read either of Nelson’s novels but this one sounds excellent. The exploration of different types of love and the setting across three summers appeals.
Yes, the ‘three consecutive summers’ thing reminded me of Margarita Liberaki’s evocative novel Three Summers, which we both enjoyed a few years ago. Naturally, the setting is very different here – both the period and the place — but there’s a certain similarity in the coming-of-age theme. :)
Not a writer I’ve come across before but I’ll have to look him up. This sounds like a sensitive and sensuous read, gentle in a way, and soulful.
Yes, that’s it exactly, bii. Soulful is just the right word for it, especially given the importance of music in these characters’ lives.
Azumah Nelson’s first book, Open Water, won the best first novel prize at the Costas a few years ago – in fact, it may well have been the last ever winner as that prize is now defunct. I also thought he was going to be named as one of the Best Young British Novelists on the recent Granta list of twenty, but sadly not. A surprising omission, I think, as he’d been hotly tipped beforehand…and I do think his writing lives up to that billing.
My own copy is on the way, so I’ve only skimmed your review – but I like what I see – can’t wait to read it.
Lovely! Funnily enough, not long after I’d posted this, I saw the Guardian’s review in one of their weekly round-up emails, and their critic, Colin Grant, was fairly lukewarm about it. He felt it was a bit mixed, almost as if Azumah Nelson (or his publishers) had rushed to get this out, probably to capitalise on the momentum of Open Water, but I think that’s a little harsh…
Nevertheless, it made me question whether I’d been swept away by the beauty of Azumah Nelson’s prose without taking a step back to consider the strength of the novel as a whole. One or two elements DO feel a little peripheral or heavy-handed, but they’re probably minor imperfections in the grand scheme of things – plus, he’s still relatively young and developing as a writer. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ll be interested to see what you think!
I read that review and thought OH but then there was a much more positive one in the New Statesman …
Oh, I don’t think I’ve seen that one. Will check it out…
Sounds like a very well-constructed novel – I particularly liked your reference to the repeated lines and actions, it makes it feel like there is something musical about the way it has been put together.
Yes, it definitely chimes with the musical references in this story, and I think this extends to novel structure, too.
A very different writer, of course, but it also reminded me a little of Javier Marias and the way he uses recurring phrases or motifs as touchstones in his novels, often returning to them repeatedly in slightly different but related contexts throughout a text. Not that I’m trying to equate Azumah Nelson with Marias (they’re clearly in very different leagues!), but their respective uses of repetition made me think about the value of this technique.
What a wonderful review – says all that I would have wanted to say in my much shorter one! In fact I’m going to link to it there if that’s OK? I felt his first one was a bit unformed but this was excellent and a leap forward for him. Loved the repetitions like musical variations, too.
Thanks, Liz! Yes, of course. Very kind of you to link to my review, thank you you. I really liked his first novel (especially the prose and the blend of different themes)…but I agree, this feels like a real progression. So glad you loved it too.
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