Shiny Prize Season – Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson – Dylan Thomas Prize

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Review by Susan Osborne

Beginning in 2010, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Small Worlds is a beautiful, eloquent exploration of love, loss and finding a place of safety for a person of colour in a white world, which follows Stephen, the youngest son of a Ghanaian couple living in Peckham.

I gaze at my parents, and see that a world can be two people, occupying a space where they don’t have to explain. Where they can feel beautiful. Where they might feel free.

In limbo between leaving school and waiting for his A level results, Stephen spends a glorious summer dancing, playing music with friends and working at Auntie Yaa’s shop where Ghanaians buy food so evocative of home, while waiting and hoping for news of the scholarship which will fund his university place. He and Del have been each other’s best friend for over a decade during which Stephen has fallen in love with her, afraid to make the first move and afraid that someone else will. Their plan is to study music together: Stephen is a trumpet player, Del plays double bass when she’s not DJing. Stephen’s father sees only an insecure future for his son despite his own youthful dreams of opening a bar where Ghanaians can build their own place of safety, dreams Stephen has himself. When his results arrive, Stephen’s plans are thrown into disarray and new ones must be made. His choices will eventually lead to a chasm opening between himself and his father. Over the next two years, all their lives will change against a background of race relations made incendiary by injustice and bungling.

The memories come back in a rush: our tiny histories, our brief intimacies, this small world. 

From its first sentence, Nelson’s novel unfolds in gorgeously rhythmic prose, repeated phrases echoing Stephen’s story so similar to his father’s which is told towards the end of the book. Themes of family, loss, grief and home run through it with racism a constant background hum. Characters retreat into ‘small worlds’, safe harbours of community, familiarity and love with faith, music, dance and particularly food, a comfort in a harsh world. Nelson’s writing is wonderfully evocative, heartrending in its depiction of the aching sadness of grief and the damage done by fear and disappointment. He writes with such poignant tenderness for these characters they feel like family. A moving, quietly heartfelt and accomplished novel, it ends with hope, at least for Stephen and for his father. 

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From Susan Osborne A Life in Books (www.alifeinbooks.co.uk) Never, ever leave home without a book

Caleb Azumah Nelson Small Worlds (Viking, 2023). 978-0241574348, 240pp., hardback.

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[ Editor’s Note: The shortlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize was announced at midnight today, beating this post by a few hours, but we hope this novel is on that shortlist. ]

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