The one thing that can solve Stephen’s problems is dancing. Dancing at Church, with his parents and brother, the shimmer of Black hands raised in praise; he might have lost his faith, but he does believe in rhythm. Dancing with his friends, somewhere in a basement with the drums about to drop, while the DJ spins garage cuts. Dancing with his band, making music which speaks not just to the hardships of their lives, but the joys too. Dancing with his best friend Adeline, two-stepping around the living room, crooning and grooving, so close their heads might touch. Dancing alone, at home, to his father’s records, uncovering parts of a man he has never truly known.
Stephen has only ever known himself in song. But what becomes of him when the music fades? When his father begins to speak of shame and sacrifice, when his home is no longer his own? How will he find space for himself: a place where he can feel beautiful, a place he might feel free?
Set over the course of three summers in Stephen’s life, from London to Ghana and back again, Small Worlds is an exhilarating and expansive novel about the worlds we build for ourselves, the worlds we live, dance and love within.
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Hang this book up in a gallery.
Give it an Oscar…a brit…an academy award.
For Caleb’s description of music alone, some kind of award is deserved.
All jokes aside, Caleb really showed us that he deserves all his praise and then some with his sophomore novel Small Worlds. With a debut as good as Open Water, there was much discussion as to whether Caleb would be able to live up to the very high standards he’d set.
Personally, I had very minimal doubts.
Open Water was beautifully written. A labour of love and an ode to Black britishness. Now I can understand why some were sceptical. But there’s something about Caleb’s writing that is so astounding…so unforgettable…so distinct. It has it’s own voice…it’s own melody if you will, that you know only HE can craft it again.
And I wasn’t too worried that he wouldn’t. But I also, didn’t expect to fall so deeply in love with Small Worlds.
We follow Stephen across three summers, a Black British-Ghanaian man living in South London with his parents and older brother. The reader is a witness to his adolescent journey as he finishes college, starts university and then figuring out life beyond that. At the heart of this is Stephen’s love for music and understanding his parents. The people that raised him, who he struggles to relate to at times.
“I know a world can be two people, occupying a space where we don’t have to explain. Where we can feel beautiful. Where we can be free.”
This book was so Black British that it made me smile just reading it. You ache, thinking back to your own summers before university and then how life changes. How lost you feel when you’re suddenly placed in the unknown…figuring out what you want to do, even if it’s outside what your parents wish for you.
The heart of this novel was literally about Small Worlds, creating small spaces where you can exist free without restrictions. It’s about discovering these different worlds and how each can co-exist without limiting who you are. It’s about being comfortable in yourself…in life because this life is the only one we have. So at the very least…we deserve to be ourselves in all forms.
It’s also about the many different worlds that lead to your own. In a multiverse sort of way, Caleb shows how everyone has their own small world. Everyone has their own world that connects with other worlds and can have an impact on them. Our parents have their own worlds that directly lead to ours. We don’t even realise, so caught up in ourselves, in figuring out our own small worlds that by the time we do…it’s suddenly about unlearning what we thought we knew.
It’s a sharp reminder that we really have no idea what’s going on in everyone’s life. Society will encourage us to focus on self-love but I think it’s so important to remember that everyone has their own life going on. It’s easy to get angry at a friend for not replying to your text quickly, or for a work colleague for not sending over a document on time or even your partner for not taking the time to ask how was your day.
But stopping to think about what may be going on in their own small world is incredibly important. It’s their world for a reason.
How would we ever know what’s going on unless they choose to give us an insight into it?
But that’s what Caleb hammers in with this book. The beauty and absolute privilege it is to be invited into someone’s small world. To see how they view life and why that’s led to the choices they’ve made.
That’s the beauty of life that we should never take for granted.
That aside, the music in this book? Now I’m 1000% sure every song, every album was chosen with precision and in relation to the story. I was HOOKED. And honestly, VikingsBooks curated a playlist to go alongside this book – you guys deserve awards for that.
Caleb himself said that “There’s a way in which music can communicate in that language can’t always… and that Small Worlds was me trying to catch the rhythms of people’s everyday… how I can make mundane things seem spectacular.”
There was something so special…so right about the song ‘Waiting in Vain‘ by Bob Marley being one of the key songs for this book.
It’s a sharp reminder that love is a beautiful emotion. It heals. It comforts. It frees us.
Don’t wait in vain for it.
Liz Dexter says
What a wonderful review! I was slightly unconvinced by Open Water, I wasn’t keen on the second person singular voice and I thought cultural icons were woven in a bit clumsily. However, there was a lot I loved about it and I said I was keen to read what he did next. And this one was amazing – still experimental in the narrative with those repeating phrases but (ironically given the title and theme?) expanding out a bit and stretching his canvas larger and all the better for that. I suspect it will be one of my books of the year. Loved his auntie and also loved reading about Peckham, somewhere I retain a massive fondness from, even though it’s changed a lot from when I lived there in the late 90s!