If you’ve read British-ghanaian author Caleb Azumah Nelson’s award-winning debut, Open Water (2021), about a fling between a photographer and a dancer, you might be forgiven for assuming that the twenty-nine-year-old’s second work of fiction is another romance, especially since its first few chapters focus on a love aair set in southeast London. But this, it transpires, is only a fraction of a much larger narrative. It is also about the character’s relationships with the people around him, his love of music and food, and his Ghanaian heritage. It’s a story about finding both one’s identity and one’s place in the world.
Small Worlds begins in and around Peckham in 2010, just as the narrator, Stephen, has left secondary school. Away from friends and family, he is coming to terms with the next stage of his life, and with his feelings for one of his best friends, Adeline. Their attraction makes sense: they have similar upbringings and a penchant for jazz, and both hope to become musicians. But a number of factors (university, family and other suitors) soon get in the way. The book follows Stephen’s experiences over three consecutive years, jumping between the and Ghana both through his parent’s memories and a trip Stephen takes himself near the end of the book. Those jumps are further accentuated by the stories his parents tell of growing up and moving countries, and how their relationship blossomed during these processes.
Like Azumah Nelson, the protagonists of both Open Water and Small Worlds are in love with the arts, are Brits of Ghanaian heritage and are navigating a changing London and an environment unwelcoming to black people. While a good writer does not necessarily need to have similar experiences to their main characters, Azumah Nelson’s personal anity with these makes for an engaging read, as he is able to describe the character’s thoughts, feelings and interactions with a level of authenticity and detail with which some readers may identify closely, especially other young Londoners of West African heritage. Azumah Nelson grew up in southeast London immersed in books, photography and the violin.
Azumah Nelson uses cultural markers to enhance readers’ understanding of his characters and their world. In Small Worlds music is as much a part of the plot as any other element of the novel – it not only helps the reader understand Stephen and his love life but aids in the understanding of his parents and where they came from as well, which could also be alluding to the daily comforts that are easily lost as a part of migration. ‘I listen to [my mum’s] stories, often of how she and Pops would party on Saturday nights, back in Ghana, at Nick’s house,’ Stephen notes. ‘If the year was 1978, then they were listening to Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas, and, of course, Fela. Nick would also import records from America: The Stylistics, Aretha, James Brown.’ Stephen also notes that after moving to the , his father – once an aspiring – discovered that to survive he’d need to give up that dream – a reality with which many settlers from the Global South will identify.
Near the end of the book, Stephen visits a family friend in Ghana and is gifted a suitcase full of his father’s old records. ‘He always said he would take this back to London and start a venue where they only played records,’ the friend explains. As Stephen, and later his father, sift through the collection alone and, at one moment, together, the music becomes a testament to a life lived with fantasies unfulfilled, and another still full of possibilities. Precious Adesina