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Review of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Small Worlds by dancing in Peckham

Photo by John Blakeley on Unsplash

Small Worlds, the follow-up to Nelson’s multi-award-winning debut Open Water, focuses on Stephen, a teenage second-generation migrant of Ghanaian parents, Eric and Joy. Theirs is an involved and loving family. Stephen’s closeness to his mother is especially apparent in their tender biweekly visits to the Peckhamplex cinema.

The family’s small world is populated by a host of characterful Ghanaians, including the entrepreneurial Uncle T, whose “mouth [is] full of gold like its own sunshine”, and the shopkeeper/cafe owner Auntie Yaa, whose stock of yam, plantain and Supermalt brings a little bit of back-home to Peckham. Yaa’s also a quick-thinking peacekeeper. When youths chase after a local boy who runs into her shop, Yaa distracts the would-be assailants with homilies and questions about their parents.

Small Worlds is determinedly not another rehearsal of the kind of voyeuristic tabloid interest in Black people’s lives marked by violence and social deprivation; rather, it’s a love story. At least it sets out that way.

Some novels announce their intention from the first page. Here the burgeoning romance between Stephen and his fellow sixth former, Del, moves glacially from a beginning that risks appearing banal to an affecting meditation on the migrant experience.

Though a perceptive narrator, Stephen is frustrated by his own inarticulacy. Del is sassy and beautiful. “I want to say this to her,” he admits, “but outside of song and film, I’ve never heard this spoken.” It might help Stephen if he was more familiar with his parents’ mother tongue, but he informs us: “Mum always says my Ga has come home in a suitcase, like I’m a visitor in my own language.”

The novel would also benefit from a more generous inclusion of the rich hybrid of London/Ghanaian vernacular. One of the challenges Nelson wrestles with is how to make soap opera-ish everyday dialogue support the narrator’s intimation of the characters’ sophisticated interior lives. Their language may falter, but music and the capacity to dance liberate both Stephen’s peers and his parents’ generation from the daily oppression of Peckham life. In a two-step, swaying in the pews at church, Eric, Joy and other elders can trade sorrow and shame; and youths achieve much the same at the local dancehall.

The narrator returns to this motif repeatedly, but though Stephen is a jazz-loving trumpeter, his description of music’s power of transcendence is often overwrought – perhaps on purpose, to reflect Stephen’s earnest youth: “I play until I am spent, until the lines dividing who I am and the sound I’m making blur and thin.”

The novel works best when we’re given hints – to suggest, for instance, that the dark side of an otherwise happy family, the tension between father and son, has arisen from a glimpsed moment of intimacy between Eric and another woman which may have been misinterpreted by Stephen.

Other pivotal scenes, such as Stephen’s trip to Elmina Castle in Ghana, from where enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas, are bolted on, and read like a shortcut towards unearned gravitas. In a novel told in three sections, not only is there a mystifying shift in register from a gentle love story in part one to the opening of part two, with the killing of Mark Duggan and the riots of 2011, but the narrator’s reflections on the ensuing conflagrations, though sincere – “We’re watching a group of people who are tired of being erased” – are unconvincing.

Intergenerational trauma is characterised by the estrangement of fathers and sons, stemming from paternal disappointment and rejection, following the sacrifices that come with migration. Towards the conclusion it becomes a governing theme, and although it works well as a coda it would have been more impactful had it been signposted earlier.

There’s a confident thrum of poetic prose in much of the writing, especially in the depiction of the reconciliatory tenderness between Stephen and his father. Overall, though, Small Worlds feels hurried. It’s only two years on from the much admired debut of this talented writer; Nelson would have been better served had the fruit of his writing not been plucked and forced to ripen before it’s ready.

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