Some people feel like outsiders every day of their lives. One such person is Harley Sekyere, a 21-year-old gay Black man in England who comes from an unsupportive household, felt at sea at college and has no idea where to turn. That’s a situation plenty of people will relate to. And it’s the premise of Small Joys, Elvin James Mensah’s sympathetic debut novel.
It’s 2005, shortly after terrorists coordinated a series of subway and bus bombings that devastated London. Harley had grand plans to graduate from university with a degree in music journalism but dropped out. Bereft of any other constructive goals, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression, he makes a drastic decision: Back home in the town of Dartford, southeast of London, he wanders into the woods with a small X-ACTO knife.
He catches a break. Muddy, a straight white man “holding a pair of binoculars,” approaches Harley, sees that he’s bleeding and stops him from proceeding further. Fortuitously, Muddy is more than just a devoted bird-watcher who happened to walk by. He’s also about to become Harley’s roommate.
Mensah then introduces other characters who become part of Harley’s support network. They include Chelsea, a young white woman whose father owns the apartment building where Harley and Muddy live. She’s a friend of Harley’s and helps him reclaim his old job at the cinema where she works. Also in the mix are Finlay, Muddy’s best mate, whom Chelsea is dating; and Noria, a Black woman who’s dating Muddy and is obsessed with styling Harley’s hair.
The center of all of this is Harley, of whom Mensah writes with great affection. He offers unforgettable details, such as when he notes that Harley is so self-conscious that he sometimes stores food in his cheeks “to create the illusion [he] was eating quicker than [he] actually was.” Harley’s lack of assurance, he says, comes from “anxiety and queerness and failure.” It also comes from his homophobic father, a religious man hoping to convert his son; his relationship with an abusive older man; and his burgeoning feelings for Muddy.
Small Joys is simpler and more predictable than the books to which it is already being compared, among them works by Brandon Taylor and Bryan Washington. The raw emotions in Mensah’s book, however, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.