The 12 stories in “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” drawn from the author’s childhood experiences in Nigeria, pitch us between present and past.
“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky”
by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Riverhead Books, $26, 240 pages
“When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters.”
The opening line from “Light,” one of 12 short stories in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” burns with a foreboding that underpins this chilling, dreamy debut collection about relationships and women with near-mystical power.
Many of the stories, clearly drawn from the UK-born, Minneapolis-based Arimah’s experiences with her family in Nigeria as a child, pitch the reader back and forth between present and past, to the point that the two seem to merge. That is the case with “Light,” which traces the evolving relationship of a Nigerian girl to the father who must raise her while her mother attends graduate school in America.
In the deceptively titled “The Future Looks Good,” Arimah slyly builds suspense as she walks back through generations to recount key moments leading up to a tragic case of mistaken identity involving two rival Nigerian sisters.
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“Who Will Greet You at Home,” about a woman who weaves a child out of hair, is a breathtaking exercise that depicts maternal desire as an almost supernatural force.
The title story in this slender collection is as devastating as it is clever. It tells the story of Nneoma, a supremely intuitive, Nigerian “Mathematician” in the not-too-distant future who can exorcise people’s grief in a world torn apart by catastrophic floods, leaving Africa among the last refuges for humanity. The story is a reversal, of sorts, of a present-day migration crisis, which sees thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East fleeing poverty and war en route to Europe each year.
But questions mount about whether the bizarre but promising form of therapy Nneoma and others like her practice is as foolproof as the science behind it suggests.
This controversy plays out against the backdrop of a class and ethnic conflict as Africa’s newest residents, refugees from the washed-out nations of Europe, manage to take undue advantage of their host societies.
Nneoma’s gift is also a curse and she struggles to balance the profound emotional impact of taking on other people’s sorrows, especially people close to her, with the benefit to those who need comfort.
Arimah has described her collection as “a patchwork of realism, magical realism and dystopian science fiction.”
But it is more than an experiment in genre writing.
These stories are also about family, the relatives we love, hate, grow with and grieve for as well as the broader family of humanity.
It’s about the ways we empower people, in particular women, and the ways we strip people of their power, often with nothing more than unkind words.
And it’s about women like the mercilessly named, “chronically single” Nigerian-American call-center operator named Glorybetogod in the story “Glory,” who comes into her own in Minneapolis by stubbornly doing things her way and navigating one misstep after another.
Arimah’s stories are witty, poetic and searing, full of flawed-but-lovable characters and images that make you reread passages.
The author has a keen sense of fantasy and the absurd, but her work is rooted in experiences and impulses that will seem all too familiar.