Book Review – Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson opens at the beginning of a hot summer that will change everything for our narrator, Stephen, and his friends; school is finished, capturing that moment between childhood and adulthood with all its uncertainty and potential, and the future is both frightening and exciting. By the end of this summer and the subsequent two summers – each transformative in their own way – dreams will have been both achieved and dashed, love will have been found and lost, friendships will have shifted and family histories will have emerged, reunions will happen, and debilitating loneliness and devastating losses will have been endured. 

This is a novel that has deep love, in all its complexities, at the heart of it; love between friends, love between family, love between siblings, and love between parents. As our narrator’s own experience with blossoming love unfolds, we see his observations and contemplation of his parents’ love, tied in with their roots in Ghana. One of my favourite things about Nelson’s writing is his knack for imbuing the smallest, simplest, quietest moments with a rare beauty – a cheek resting on a cheek, a finger gently brushing off an arm, the light hitting someone’s skin – and also his narrators’ abilities for seeing beauty in the people around them; not a superficial beauty but a beauty that emanates from their very person in the small moments. This pure beauty observed and experienced, meditations on love, and the rhythms of life are just some of the qualities ingrained in Nelson’s way of writing that make it quite unique, and such a joy to read. His fluid, gentle, melodic writing, and the use of repetition, often evokes spoken word. Music, once again, is also at the heart of this novel, exploring the power of both music and dance when we have no words, and where no other solution exists; the strength gained through music in the face of injustice; the spaces where faith and music offer alternate sources of resilience, and where they merge. 

For all the love and beauty, there are also a lot of darker and more difficult themes addressed, including racial injustice, plummeting sense of self, and the pressures on young people in particular to find their place in this world. Stephen navigates a difficult relationship with his father, exploring the challenges faced, and sacrifices made by, immigrants, often bringing with them the pressure of expectations for the next generation, and often also bringing up the cyclical nature of family histories; exploring how families can be torn apart, but also unified, through grief; exploring the importance of following our own hearts in life. 

A beautiful and heart-wrenching book; a read that is at once tender and powerful. 


Small Worlds is published May 11th 2023 by Viking. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for my eARC.


Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His first novel, OPEN WATER, won the Costa First Novel Award and Debut of the Year at the British Book Awards, and was a number one Times bestseller. It also won the Bad Form Book of the Year Award, a Betty Trask Award and a Somerset Maugham Award, and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, Waterstones Book of the Year, and longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. He was selected as a National Book Foundation ‘5 under 35’ honoree by Brit Bennett.

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