Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Born in the UK, raised largely in Nigeria, and now resident in Minneapolis, USA – Africa and the West are blended in debut author Lesley Nneka Arimah’s heritage just as they are in her vibrant short fiction. “Light,” one of the stories in What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky, won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, while the title story was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize. Most of these dozen stories are set in a recognizable Nigeria, with past events like the Biafran War contrasting with real and imagined future scenarios. Biafra is a point of reference for a father and war veteran curbing his daughter’s habit of “vigilante schoolyard justice” in “War Stories,” and serves as an older sister’s name in “The Future Looks Good,” whose twist ending mocks the title’s optimism.
The protagonists are generally young women poised on the brink of wildness and trying to decide between what’s sensible and what they really want from life. The title of “Light” refers to the spirit a father senses in his fourteen-year-old daughter. After all the physical and emotional changes they’ve successfully negotiated over the three years his wife has been studying for her MBA in the United States, he fears the girl’s spirit will be broken when she leaves Nigeria to go live with her strict mother. In “Glory,” the opposite trajectory is the repressive one: Glorybetogod, working in a Minneapolis call centre, knows that if she accepts Thomas’s marriage proposal she’s signing on for a move back to Nigeria and a new identity as a traditional wife and mother. “Girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correction till the flames die out,” the final story, “Redemption,” warns.
Three of the stories employ magic realism to infuse everyday situations with novel possibilities. “Second Chances” has a mother returning eight years after her death, while “Who Will Greet You at Home” imagines that babies are crafted out of yarn or clay and come to life when given a special blessing. In the title story, set in a dystopian future in which Britain and most of North America have been wiped out, Nneoma is a “Mathematician” who calculates people’s grief and takes it away from them. She’s an expert at spotting the sadness of refugees and the bereaved, but the collective weight of their grief threatens to crush her. “What Is a Volcano?”, meanwhile, is the fable-like tale of Ant’s vendetta against River.
Just over half of the pieces are in the third person, with four in the first person and one, intriguingly, in the second: “Windfalls” is directed entirely to “you,” recounting to Graceline how her mother taught her to fake falls in supermarkets to make money from lawsuits. Her name makes one think of a ‘fall from grace’, and the story’s language resonates with other elements of the collection: falling for a sweetheart, falling pregnant, or – in the title story – the literal fall of a man who falsely presumes that Furcal’s Formula, a theory of everything discovered by the protagonist’s grandfather, will enable human flight.
One issue I sometimes have when reading short stories is sudden, inconclusive endings that offer little discernible meaning. It’s almost as if these are just episodes in a novel and require more context. Luckily, there are only two stories here that end in an indeterminate way, and there are such wonderful, natural turns of phrase throughout that the narratives rollick along. Medical and food-related metaphors are particularly common. A few of my favourites were “after years of feeling like an exposed nerve, I’d finally myelinated,” “the caul of misfortune covering Glory’s face that would affect every decision she made,” and “Bibi’s mother grew to resent her and stewed so hot the child should have boiled in her belly.”
This is a fine set of tales about everyday foibles and sorrows. As someone complains to the Mathematicians in the title story, “you shouldn’t be stopping a person from feeling natural hardships. That’s what it means to be human.” The tone is nicely balanced between playful and melancholy, and the variety in narration and setup keeps things interesting, such that you’ll likely sit down and read several stories at a time. I’d particularly recommend this to fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kei Miller. I’ll be looking out eagerly for Arimah’s next book, whether it’s a novel or more short stories.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the USA and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky (Tinder Press, 2017). 978-1472239617, 240 pp., hardback.
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