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.