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Small Worlds 

Caleb Azumah Nelson 

Penguin (2023)


Review by Maame Blue


   ‘I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame. She sings these words, knowing that if we’re in this room, then we’ve probably known sorrow, probably known shame. We know death in its multitudes, but we’re all very serious about being alive.’

There was a comfort I was not expecting from reading Caleb Azumah Nelson’s second novel, Small Worlds. The world created was so familiar that I wondered what we’ve all been quietly revealing about ourselves, that a novelist has now plucked from the air to fuel his fiction. Whatever secrets we have, Azumah Nelson unravels them with stylish expertise.

In the opening, we are taken inside a church, witness to a congregation trying to connect through dance, through that hopeful movement that at times pushes all our sorrows away. Immediately, the scene took me back to my adolescence. Even then, my doubts about the religious space were growing, but gospel music could still tug at something deep within; we might walk in as nonbelievers and still find ourselves dancing. Azumah Nelson holds up a mirror to that otherworldly, spiritual experience. But the story gets into its stride when it pulls in trauma from the past.

   ‘He’ll tell us of mandate, of expulsion from Nigeria, of Ghana Must Go, of having to choose which parts of your life to keep, which to let fall away.’

Moments like this, listening to the elders tell of their lives, pull apart the things we know about being Ghanaian Brits, revealing truths behind how we live presently – the ‘frenemy’ status of Ghanaians and Nigerians, the pervasive traumas that originate in expulsion, the drip-drop of stories about those things that came before us. More often than not, we pick up pieces of the puzzle from friends of the family, distant aunties, fair-weather uncles and someone else’s cousin. 

‘When I ask more of Mum, of the time she came here, the problem isn’t that she doesn’t remember. It’s that she cannot forget.’

But perhaps I am putting too personal a spin on it because I did see myself in this book – and my friends, and cousins and extended family I have and have not met. It is, all at once, Ghanaian and Black and British and lovely and, at times, incredibly sad. Azumah Nelson packs no punches with his prose; his style using short, breathless statements juxtaposed with rhythmic, lyrical flows is cemented by this second novel, the chapters bleeding into one another at points. Small Worlds is a read-in-one sitting sort of book, with a millennial nod in its music references, and a strong desire to connect with the older generation running through it. 

   ‘I send over a greeting in Ga and they both laugh at me. Mum always says my Ga has come in a suitcase, like I’m a visitor in my own language. My ear can hear it all, can hear the music of my mother tongue, but my mouth won’t allow for certain things, since my Ga is one that travelled, coming in Mum’s suitcase.’

The language of the novel enacts connection, patience and the seriousness of being alive. And there won’t be disappointment when you turn to the last page because this will be a novel you’ll read again.