The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Small Worlds

Caleb Azumah Nelson
Small Worlds
(Grove Press, 2023)

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s second novel, Small Worlds, has much in common with his award-winning debut Open Water. Both focus on young, Black, male characters born in London to Ghanaian immigrants, and both set most of their action in the summer, when the days are longer and responsibilities fewer. Small Worlds and Open Water both exult in the joys and possibilities of Black life but also know that these joys might be violently snatched away at any moment. And both feature central characters who explore an open, vulnerable masculinity, adding to important recent writing on the subject, such as the contributions to Derek Owusu’s 2019 anthology Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space.

As one might expect from a second novel, Small Worlds expands beyond its predecessor in several ways. It includes a greater number of voices and characters. It takes its main character to Ghana instead of remaining in Southeast London (though this doesn’t diminish my feeling that Nelson wants to do for Peckham what Zadie Smith did for Willesden). And it develops its central metaphor of worlds or spaces more fully, exploring not only the way that people can build spaces or shelters out of personal connections but also the way that spaces shape lives. When the main character Stephen’s Auntie Yaa is forced to close the largest Afro-Caribbean shop in Peckham because her rent is suddenly tripled, for example, we’re reminded that unchecked development can destroy the social fabric of neighborhoods.

Small Worlds feels thinner than Open Water at some points, most notably in the way it incorporates visual arts and music into its pages. One of the successes of Open Water was the way it brought painting, photography, music, and film into conversation with each other, exploring their various limits and possibilities and the ways they interact with language. Small Worlds features jazz, hip hop, and soul music throughout, and there are moments of productive exchange between language and sound, such as when Stephen listens to J Dilla’s Donuts and hears “an instrument falling away to make room for us, the listeners, in the music.” Moments like these provide new ways to understand a song or artist, recalling Hanif Abdurraqib’s influence on Nelson. But there aren’t enough of them. Too frequently, artists or musicians are simply name-checked before the narrative moves on.

As if addressing these moments, Small Worlds often mentions the limits of language. Stephen notes, for example, that language is insufficient for understanding his mother’s experience as an immigrant from Ghana, for expressing his anger at racial injustice, for capturing the intimacy he feels with his lifelong companion Del, and for conveying the depth of his relationship with song. More than once, he comments that the role language played in colonization and slavery makes it “less tool than burden” for him.

This focus on language’s limits helps avoid overconfidence—as though any of these feelings or experiences could be fully expressed—but it feels misplaced. After a dozen or so assertions of language’s insufficiency, I again recalled Open Water and the way it also doubted language (“Language fails us, always”) but forged ahead, doing its best with inadequate tools. At one point, Open Water’s narrator falls silent when he feels inarticulately burdened by his existence as a Black man. His girlfriend tries to get him to talk, and despite the difficulty, he wills himself to find words. “You don’t have music, but you do have your way of seeing her,” he writes. “You do have a way of portraying her joy. You do have words.”

Small Worlds also has words, and it achieves a great deal with them. Nelson’s writing of summer is fantastic. While Michael Chabon once wrote an essay explaining how he used summer to structure his first novel Mysteries of Pittsburgh, for Nelson, summer is more than a structure. It’s a sense of possibility that infuses his writing at every level. In one short chapter early in the book, Stephen and his Auntie Yaa sit in front of her shop with drinks after they’ve closed early. The scene perfectly captures summer in the city: kids ride by on bikes, old men laugh and drink beers, people argue about soccer. To remember the moment, Stephen focuses on rhythm, or the way that the different participants bring their own patterns to the dance, changing the whole arrangement as they do. Stephen’s focus turns a reader’s attention to the rhythm of Nelson’s prose, so as Stephen turns to leave and encounters his friend Marlon who invites him to a party the next night, which prompts Stephen to text Del and ask if she’s free to go, or even free to hang out later that same night, we get the sense as readers that anything might happen. We think, with Stephen, that “everything feels possible.”

Small Worlds also shows how language, particularly narrative, can repair relationships or mend bridges between people. One of the novel’s central plot points involves the changing shape of Stephen and Del’s relationship. When Stephen goes to university in Nottingham, he experiences a deep feeling of loneliness, and distance grows between him and Del when he won’t speak about it. As in Open Water, the distance closes when Stephen talks honestly, and when Del meets his words with her own. I won’t ruin the ending of the novel, but the narrative works in a similar way for Stephen and his father, allowing the two to understand each other and experience a new sense of freedom in community.

The point of language in moments like these is not to exhaustively express an emotion or experience or measure up to any pre-existing standard. It’s simply to make a thoughtful offering in the hope that it meets with understanding, and maybe to build community. This, I believe, is the most important work that Nelson is doing with his words, and I look forward to seeing what he does with them next.


Dan Kubis

Dan Kubis teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh. He has reviewed books for the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Chicago Review of Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues