A novel that chronicles 170 years of American nation-building from numerous points-of-view across place and time, and explores the Great American Experiment from its formative days to the present moment and asks whether or not our nation has made good on its promises.
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.