Jonathan Evison’s Small World tells the stories of a train’s passengers in 2019 and their mid-nineteenth-century ancestors after a disastrous crash. There’s Walter Bergen, a veteran train conductor on his last run before retiring, and a descendent of Irish twin orphans. Malik, a young basketball star, is the descendent of a slave. Then there’s Jenny, a corporate consultant whose ancestors were Chinese immigrants, and Laila, a Native American, fleeing her abusive husband. Small World chronicles 170 years of American nation-building from many points of view across place and time. This inventive work explores the immigrant experience, and that of the modern era in the United States.
I read and reviewed Jonathan Evison’s last novel, Legends of the North Cascades Amy’s July Reads, in 2021 and really enjoyed it, so I was eager to read Small World. I was not disappointed. He did a masterful job juggling complex, multiple narratives and then connecting them throughout generations.
To mix things up, he wrote these storylines differently. For example, Nora’s chapters are letters to her long-lost brother, Finn, a great way to not only share her story, but her emotions. Coincidentally, Finn struggled with despair. “For six nights he slept beneath the prairie sky, gazing up at the unfathomable firmament, the stars splashed across the bowl of night. He took no solace in the night sky. The loneliness was crushing, as though he could feel the weight of the heavens pushing down on him.”
It’s a sizeable cast of characters, but they are well drawn and unique. Although most chapters are short and interesting, he sometimes provided too much detail about events. The play-by-play of a ball game, for example, was over the top and quickly lost my interest. I also found the climax of the novel to be unsatisfying. The book is overlong (480 pages), and some storylines don’t conclude, like an ellipsis at the end of a sentence. Still, the book is meaningful and well executed. 4 stars.
Published date: January 2022
Genre: Historical fiction