Evison's Small World features some of the standard elements of a disaster plot ... But Evison complicates and enriches the narrative by providing not only a back story for each of his passengers, but a historical explanation for why each of them are here. In many ways, his characters represent archetypical stories, but they are infused with humanity in his capable hands ... By setting his characters in an American epic, Evison reminds readers that all of us are descended from those who endured hard times ... It is a rich inheritance, and Evison's telling of those stories is riveting.
Evison’s characters are distinctive and the plot is well paced. Depictions of the sibling ache between the separated twins Nora and Finn Bergen (Walter’s ancestors), the survivor’s guilt of Wu and the longing Jenny has for a connection to her parents are deeply felt ... The novel is easy to love in part because it deals in generosity and hope. Part of the reading experience will hinge on how much evidence one needs to believe in humanity’s capacity for altruism ... The lives of Evison’s characters require action, and this need — to act now and fast — along with the cast’s size, poses the hazard of skimming from their interiority ... Jess Row aptly argues in 'White Flights' that many white novelists place their stories in diverse cities, but conveniently omit people of color from their cast. Evison does not omit, and the novel is more expansive because of it, but at times I wished to know more about the characters’ internal lives, the details and contexts outside of the immediate plot ... Small World is ambitious, showing our interconnectedness across time, place and cultures. What happens on the day of potential tragedy is revealed slowly throughout the book. I wanted to know the conclusion to every character’s story line so much that I wasn’t too concerned with how Walter’s train went awry. The final pages, earnest and direct, chance the sentimental, which might be the riskiest move of all.
Its short chapters and sheer eventfulness keep the story chugging along, while its (somewhat mechanistic) plotting creates enough suspense to hold the attention. It’s broad-brush, well-intentioned stuff, with an ethnically diverse cast of characters offering, through close third-person narration, wry, sometimes caustic commentary on the nature of American opportunity ... Evison’s writing is best when his powerful feelings for injustice and privilege grate against one another, producing some effective ironies ... Sometimes, though, he drifts into a more sententious, editorial register ... That the characters tend to be, at heart, straightforwardly good or bad only compounds the didactic effect ... Evison’s prose is often marred by hackneyed phrases ... He can also be a little loose, repeating expository phrases and sometimes missing the right historical tone ... it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. It’s odd that the contemporary chapters, set in 2019 and 2020, barring scattered references to identity politics, don’t tackle the wider cultural crises of the Trump era. And the book’s moral simplicity rather leaches it of urgency and vigor.
The train trip is a splendid device to link them, and as the snow gathers and the train steams north, each flashback chapter further endears the characters to our hearts. Don’t worry, the chapters are headed by the year and the character’s name, so it’s easy to keep track of them all. Jonathan Evison displays a great talent for bringing a character to life with only a few words...From the frenzy of the California gold rush to the grand Chicago homes of the railroad investors, the places in this book come to life ... The risk in introducing so many intriguing stories is that some are necessarily left hanging. Yet on the train, present-day lives change for better and worse; in the past, Nora finally finds her brother. Such is a testament to Evison’s storytelling that even at 466 pages, I didn’t want to see the end of this SMALL WORLD.
Evison has published a string of superb novels...so it is thrilling to see the talent, ambition, and execution coalesce in this masterpiece ... Each character displays the fierce fortitude and stubborn resilience that define the American spirit. The sweeping panorama is the perfect canvas on which Evison explores the diversity of the nation’s character while limning contours and adding textures to bring to vivid life his memorable characters. Such masterful strokes seem to qualify Small World as the quintessential Great American Novel as Evison eloquently shows that perhaps the most authentically American ideal is the ongoing, blended palette of stories.
Epic ... Readers are treated to seemingly unrelated vignettes that jump back and forth across time and space. Piece by piece, Evison successfully corrals this sprawling history into a cohesive whole, coalescing it into a vivid mosaic ... Part of the reason this 480-page book seems like a novel half its girth is Evison’s ability to drop the reader into a scene ... Throughout it all, Evison underscores a sense of a shared America, not so much in the kumbaya mythology of the melting pot but a feeling—oft-neglected these days—that we are all in this nation-building adventure together. That’s a destiny worth manifesting.
Ambitious ... Suspenseful ... Bouncing among the characters in brief chapters, Evison gives the story a sprightly, page-turner feel despite the sizable cast he’s assembled. And the story thrives because his eye for the particulars of each character’s life is so sharp ... Evison’s novel feels less like we’re-all-connected sentimentality than a compassionate vision of a pluralistic country that ought to dignify everybody ... Politics aren’t explicit in the novel ... Without being simplistic or wearing rose-colored glasses, Evison suggests a fresh way of recognizing our relationships without melting-pot clichés ... A bighearted, widescreen American tale.
Ambitious if overlong ... While some of the historical details and the characters’ relationships to one another feel a bit scattered, Evison’s depiction of the characters’ family histories builds significance as contemporary racial inequalities and class disparities are brought into relief against those of the 1850s ... Expansive ... It’s baggy, but still thick with insights.