The best collection of short fiction by a single author. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah not only contains individually compelling stories, but also captures an impressive range of complex family relationships, cultural differences, magical realism, and a touch of science fiction. The first comparison to mind is The Interpreter of Maladies for the way it shows a variety of relationships across and between two cultures; in this case, stories take place in Nigeria or America.
I found this collection via LaVar Burton’s podcast. His June 27, 2017 episode features the title story, and I picked up the book after listening to the story for a second time. While this and “Who Will Greet You at Home” are brilliant, they’re not fully representative of the collection which largely takes place in the real world without magic. Stories set around everyday themes show Arimah’s skill at writing ordinary relationships, several of which center on mothers and daughters—each struggling with a sense of obligation to the other.
There are eleven stories so I’m not going to dissect them all, just the standouts and one weak spot:
“What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky”
In many ways, the title story is the most complete in the collection. The action centers around an infinite formula that allows mathematicians like Nneoma to do miraculous things:
“Some Mathematicians remove pain, some of us deal in negative emotions, but we all fix the equation of a person. The bravest”—she winked—“have tried their head at using the Formula to make the human body defy gravity, for physical endeavors like flight.” (163)
Nneoma removes grief from wealthy people and is in conflict with her ex because her ex (Kioni) helps refugees and displaced persons. “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky” takes on a number of topics—grief, privilege, climate change (a source of displacement), and science/faith—without getting bogged down by any one in particular. As the title suggests, a man falls from the sky in the opening pages, which hints at a problem in the infinite formula. There are ground rules and exposition for this world, but Arimah gives the reader enough information to open up the story without creating too many pitfalls.
Enebeli is the only named character in this story. His wife has gone to America to pursue a Master’s degree and left him alone with their daughter. As Enebeli and his daughter grow closer, mother and daughter grow apart:
At fourteen the girl is almost a woman, but still a girl, and her mother is trying to prepare her for the world. Stop laughing so loud, dear. How is it that I can hear you chewing all the way here in America? What do you mean Daddy made you breakfast, you are old enough to be cooking. Distance between mother and daughter widens till the girl doesn’t enjoy talking to her mother anymore, begins to see it as a chore. (59)
Nearly every line of this story develops multiple characters simultaneously while complicating their relationships. Enebeli exults in the moments that his daughter takes his side, though it pains him that his wife is distant. He watches his daughter “[grow] cautious under the mothering of a woman who loves but cannot comprehend her.” (63) The mother’s criticism is cruel on the surface, but it doesn’t come from a cruel place because she feels her daughter must change to survive in the world. Arimah’s ability to push/pull this family apart/together in a short space is impressive. I felt the weight of these relationships.
Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years, not since Nigeria, when she was pregnant with my younger sister, though not yet showing, and fell down the concrete steps to our house, ripping the dress from hem to thigh. Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years. (65)
It’s not a new concept for the dead to come back and the living to seek closure, but this variation on that old story is eerie and moving in the best ways.
Looking at this review so far, I’m thinking—What about “Wild”? What about “Windfalls”? All these stories deserve a highlight for one reason or another. I only chose these three because they’re the first three that came to mind.
Weak spot: “What Is a Volcano”
The god of ants and the goddess of rivers were feuding. Their feud was in the early stages, more a cause for rolled eyes and snickers than alarm. River had divided one of her streams, and the new current washed away a small anthill of no real consequence, except Ant had grown especially fond of this fledgling colony. He complained first to the goddess of hearts, legendary for her sympathy. Then to the god of vengeance, known for his, well, vengeance. Ant approached many other deities, trying to talk them onto his side of things, but those who did not smite him simply laughed, for Ant was the most minor of the gods, hardly more than a spirit, and who even knew there was a god of ants, did you? (201)
Even the weak spot of this collection is entertaining, but the conversational aspects of this story (e.g., “did you?”) don’t feel inviting as much as they make the narrator distant and at odds with the story. It’s hard to put my finger on, but something about this story feels cold, especially when compared with the other stories which have so much heart.
Overall: 5.0 (out of 5.0) In theory, I could slice off a fraction of a point for “What Is a Volcano” but I mean it when I say this is the best collection of short fiction I’ve read by a single author. It avoids the usual problems: repetitiveness, reliance on gimmicks, filler stories, and pretentiousness. Instead, it offers variety, nuanced characters, imagination, and poetic prose. I’ve read several stories a second or third time, and I run out of superlatives when describing it to friends. If this collection doesn’t get a 5.0, then what collection does?
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