It’s a strange and fraught time, that space between the end of high school and the rest of your life. You’re caught on the border between childhood and maturity, between parental protection and personal agency. In Small Worlds, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s follow-up to his award-winning debut novel, Open Water, musician Stephen is right on the cusp of adulthood, but he is also straddling two cultures: London, his home; and Ghana, from which his family emigrated.
At the novel’s outset, Stephen has feelings for longtime gal pal Del, but he can’t find the words to express his love. He dances around his emotions, quite literally. Whether in a spontaneous two-step with his brother, swaying in the pews at church or feeling the rhythm in Peckham dance halls blaring Rick James, J Dilla and D’Angelo, Stephen sees dancing as an escape, a safety net and salvation.
His father doesn’t exactly share the sentiment and is concerned that his son is adrift. Pops encourages Stephen to drop the idea of pursuing a music degree and study business instead, which Stephen does, to little success. And when he drops out of college and returns home, a rift opens between father and prodigal son that seems irreparable. Harsh words are exchanged, and Stephen departs for a new phase of his life.
Over the next few years, Stephen takes tentative steps toward being his own man, explores his Ghanaian roots and discovers the joys of preparing and sharing food with others. He bonds with a friend who has suffered a beat-down at the hands of a racist gang and muses on what it means to be a Black immigrant in modern-day England. He tentatively expresses his love for Del and extends an olive branch to his father.
The book’s action, such that there is, unfolds slowly, and when we take our leave of Stephen at the story’s end, he’s still a work in progress. But even small worlds take time to build, and Nelson leaves us with the impression that this one will be bountiful—with a dance floor at its center.