Caleb Azumah Nelson returns with an elegant, lyrical novel

Small Worlds. By Caleb Azumah Nelson. Grove Atlantic; 272 pages; $27. Viking; £14.99

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s (pictured) award-winning debut novel about two black artists in London heralded the arrival of a talented new writer. “Open Water” (2021) was a slim yet substantial love story in which the lead characters were unnamed and the events were narrated in the second person. In his follow-up, the author takes fewer stylistic risks but tells a tale that has more scope and emotional heft.

“Small Worlds” follows Stephen, a young British-Ghanaian man with a loving family and a vibrant community in south-east London. He immerses himself in music, jamming with his band, playing records and dancing in clubs. “I’ve only ever known myself in song,” he says.

Over the course of three consecutive summers, Stephen falls in love with his best friend, Del, drops out of university and is kicked out by his father. Then the sudden death of his mother prompts Stephen to visit Ghana and rebuild relationships at home.

Stephen’s and Del’s on-off romance is beautifully charted, from the unspoken declarations and missed opportunities of its early stages to the intimate moments of shared love and mutual understanding. Mr Nelson captivates, too, with his depictions of tensions between father and son.

Mr Nelson describes the challenges of Stephen’s parents’ journey to Britain, and how gentrification makes life in an adopted homeland difficult. He highlights the animosity faced by people of colour. Stephen is haunted by the killing in 2011 of Mark Duggan, a black British man, by police. “Mark’s demise was forced upon him: enveloped and subsumed by violence.”

Such themes of identity, belonging and injustice are pertinent. Yet the standout feature of “Small Worlds” is the author’s elegant, lyrical prose, which is at its most enthralling when limning Stephen’s passion for music. Songs by notable black artists were listed throughout “Open Water”. Here, music does more than embellish the narrative—it provides its rhythm. Mr Nelson captures the modes of grime, garage, gospel and jazz, repeating certain phrases at key junctures like musical motifs. He conveys how music makes Stephen feel alive and free. This is a novel which has heart, soul and the power to move.

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