A particular kind of excitement comes from recognising a familiar place in a novel. Admittedly, it is less exciting when the place in question is the Bagel King on Walworth Road. Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, Open Water – a love story involving two young black Londoners – was peppered with the chicken shops, cinemas, bars and barbers of southeast London. His new novel, Small Worlds, which is similarly romantic but richer and louder, ranging from Accra in the 1980s to the 2011 London riots, finds the same significance in places. They both prove that to understand a city in detail, let alone a borough or street, is a political act.
The main storyline unfolds over several years, beginning with Stephen, our narrator, leaving school for university. It is not a campus novel; hardly a paragraph is spent in a classroom or lecture theatre. Instead, we are indulged with warm nights, parched grass, barbecues, speakers echoing across basketball courts.