In a year where I’ve read some extraordinary debut collections, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s is right up there.

opening remarks

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah has featured on the year’s best lists of people I rate. I bought it when it came out eight months ago and here I am cracking open the covers on the penultimate day of the year.

knee-jerk observations

We’re off to a scintillating start.  The Future Looks Good is a short, powerful story with a gut punch in the tail.  As Ezinma fumbles with her keys we flashback to the story of her family in Nigeria.  The opening line, which I won’t quote, foreshadows something horrible and yet the rapid stream of family history, of civil war, hard times and abuse makes us forget the inevitable around the corner.

Wild is a story that could easily be the first section of a novel.  Ada is a rebellious teenager (a tautology?) acting out by taking drugs and calling her teacher a fascist:

As a punishment of sorts, her frustrated mother sends Ada back to Lagos over the summer holidays.  On arrival in Lagos, Ada is reintroduced to her cousin Chinyere, who has problems of her own, and she discovers more about her father who died when she, Ada, was young.  Arimah captures that sardonic teenage tone, the mini-adult who believes she has all the answers.  The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but I could easily have read a novel’s worth of story about Ada, Chinyere and the challenges they face.

Second Chances is a sorrowful slice of magical realism.  Nnwam has to again come to terms with her mother’s death after her mother abruptly appears alongside her father having seemingly walked out of a photo.  Arimah, thankfully, avoids questions of how this resurrection came about and instead focusses on Nnwam’s guilt, recalling her last conversation with her mother before she died.  The opening paragraph not only establishes the tone but it’s also a fine piece of writing:

In Windfalls a mother and daughter make their living from intentionally injuring themselves and then suing the ‘responsible’ store, council or person.  This piece is written in the second person, which does mark it out from the other stories I’ve read so far, but it’s also harsher and more cynical.  As an example in the excerpt below the teenage daughter discovers she’s pregnant and wonders who the father might be:

Wow.  That’s my immediate reaction to reading Who Will Greet You At Home.  A dark fairytale where prospective mothers create their children from whatever material is at hand – wood, yarn, paper or if they’re really wealthy, porcelain.  The more expensive and precious the material the greater the chance the child will survive its first year at which point it will transition to flesh and blood.  Ogechi, who lives hand to mouth, doesn’t have the resources to create a sturdy child, until one day… This is a spectacular piece of writing.  The collection is worth buying just for this story:

And so I’ve come to the title story, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.  I expected the title to be a metaphor but what I got was an actual man falling from the sky.  The story is set in a future where a good chunk of the world is under water and a Chilean mathematician has discovered an infinite formula, an endless stretch of code which, amongst other things, has embedded within it the ability for people to fly:

In addition, the formula, when exposed to certain people, allows them to manage the emotions of others.  For example, our protagonist, Nneoma, can vanish away a person’s grief.  The story has the expositional heft of a conventional SF story, which gives it the sheen of the familiar – you could see this piece published in Asimovs.  It’s very good though, the writing slick and the world building strong – Amirah packs a shit-load in.  Thematically, though, it’s a little hazy.  It feels like the big questions around the ethics and logic of removing people’s shitty feelings doesn’t get enough exposure.  Not until the end, that is, which is abrupt but still powerful.

Glorybetogod (her real name even if Facebook won’t believe her) has made so many wrong decisions in her life that the bitterness of failure and lack of worth has led her to consider suicide.  As miserable as that sounds Glory is one of the funnier and, to an extent, lighter stories in the collection.  The excerpt below has Glory meet a gentleman named Thomas whom she has conflicting thoughts about:

What Is A Volcano is the most wonderful bedtime story about the tragic war between the Ant God and the River God.

The Gist Of It

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a fine compilation of short fiction.  In a year where I’ve read some magnificent debut collections – David Hayden, Carmen Maria Machado – this one is right up there and deserves the recognition it’s been getting.  The predominant theme of these 12 stories is family and in particular relationships between parents and children.  In a couple of the stories a father or mother is dead or no longer in the picture and, as a result, these are also stories about young people (and some not so young) trying to find a sense of worth and purpose.  The addition of Nigeria, a key setting in a number of the pieces, only heightens the importance of family and the hope of building a better life for the generatioon. While the theme might carry-over from story to story tonally and in terms of actual content and shape they are very different. Arimah offers up dark fairytales, magic realism, science fiction, young adult drama, and stories that cleave closer to reality. It’s this change in mode, from realism to genre to somewhere in between that marks Lesley Nneka Arimah as a writer to be excited about.