Music Could Be His Living, but Life Keeps Getting in the Way

SMALL WORLDS, by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, “Open Water” (2021), was rightly praised for its poetic take on young Black love in contemporary England. It also refreshed this weary reader by bucking the trend among young writers for affectless prose reflecting a passive narrator.

Azumah Nelson’s second novel, “Small Worlds,” is longer, looser and less successful. The narrator, Stephen, a young Black Englishman whose parents came to London from Ghana, is not passive, but not exactly an action man either. There’s a languid quality to his life as he ambles around Peckham, a South London neighborhood that was once down at heel and is now up-and-coming.

Stephen’s story runs in a leisurely way from 2010 to 2012. Music is central to his life, as it was to the characters in “Open Water,” but Stephen doesn’t just appreciate it (“the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing”): He makes music — playing the trumpet — and wants to study it in college.

His life has a tight focus, centered on friends and extended family, and although wider social and racial contexts occasionally burst in — particularly the 2011 police killing of Mark Duggan and the subsequent protests — the narrative mostly skirts major events. Crucial changes — leaving home, dropping out of university — are dispatched in a sentence, in favor of the things that stay the same: meals, nights out, trivial conversations, the continuum of life.

A corollary of this is that “Small Worlds” is a novel of moods and vibes rather than thoughts and ideas, exemplified in the repeated — and repetitive — references to “feeling,” typically italicized so the reader doesn’t miss the point. People watching Ghanaian soccer players in the 2010 World Cup are “bound to them in a way they might not necessarily know, but can feel.” On three occasions we are offered a variant of the sentence “how arbitrary to put your fate into the hands of a small group, when so much of the music relies on feeling.” Music does indeed thrive on feeling, but a 259-page novel needs something more.

The reliance on “feeling” reflects a wider evasiveness in the book despite its rich, lyrical moments. Azumah Nelson’s descriptions — of music, food and sex in particular — are strong. “Our spirits threaten to spill from our bodies,” he writes about listening to a J Dilla tune. “Joy emerges in its multitudes.” But he’s less sure-footed when he goes internal. There’s a direct-from-Hallmark banality to some observations, such as when we’re told (twice) that “grief never ends, but we find a way to walk in the light someone has left behind.”

Often the phrasing is overwrought (“rice ready to miracle itself from pebble to pillow”) or just bizarre (“June veers towards July”). This is frustrating, because “Small Worlds” is a bighearted book, and Stephen is an amiable character. The most powerful emotions — anger at becoming estranged from his father, grief following a bereavement — are locked behind clotted prose, and there is no tonal difference between, say, a description of race riots and an account of learning to cook.

But hold on, and hang in there. The third and last part of the book is the strongest, as Stephen renegotiates his relationship with his father. We get clarity, and a surprising narrative switch that somehow works. One scene excels: Stephen visits his aunt in Ghana and finds a box of old vinyl records; she tells him his father once wanted to make a living from music. What happened? Stephen asks her. “‘Life got in the way,’ and she says no more.” Suddenly Stephen sees where he has come from, and where he is going — and at last the reader is filled with feeling.

John Self is a book critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Financial Times, BBC Culture and elsewhere.

SMALL WORLDS | By Caleb Azumah Nelson | 259 pp. | Grove Press | $27

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