Grief collectors and joy destroyers

51oKrJspnEL._AC_UL320_SR202,320_What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection, ranges between stories that are very good to stories that are truly outstanding. Moving between present-day America to present-day Nigeria to a futuristic Nigeria, Arimah proves she can handle small, domestic moments as well as she manages sweeping speculative fiction. The title story is the most ambitious in terms of world-building, presenting us with a mid-twenty-first century Nigeria where Europe and North America have been so badly afflicted by flooding that western refugees are pouring into African and Central American countries. Satisfyingly, Arimah doesn’t settle for a simple ‘the tables have turned’ narrative, and realistically portrays the continuance of western, white supremacy, even as the governments of countries such as Britain and France become reliant on old colonial possessions for aid. Arimah ominously hints at a darker reality behind ‘the Biafra-Britannia Alliance’, having her narrator, Nneoma, reflect, ‘Better a mutually beneficial, if unwanted, alliance than what the French had done in Senegal, the Americans in Mexico.’ But ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky’, despite these tantalising hints, is not really about a flooded future; it focuses on Nneoma’s work as ‘a grief collector’, relieving people of psychological burdens that are too heavy to bear, and her concern for her missing girlfriend, Kioni. I wished that it was at least twice the length; there seemed so much more to say when the story abruptly ended, and it could have been fruitfully expanded into a novella, or even into a novel.

For that reason, the most perfect short story in this collection for me was ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, set in a pleasingly inexplicable alternative world where younger women (and the world we see seems to be totally composed of women) fashion babies out of the materials that come to hand then take them home so their mothers can breathe life into their children. However, Ogechi’s babies keep failing; in the marvellous opening paragraph, one of them simply disintegrates: ‘Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unravelled as she continued walking, mistaking the little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone.’ She can’t take her children home to her mother any more because she knows none of them will be seen as good enough, so, in a pleasing inversion of the ‘grief collectors’ in ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky’, she pays an older woman a portion of her joy to bring a string of failures to life. ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ is one of those stories that’s so incredibly rich in symbolism that I almost don’t want to pick it apart; yes, it’s about motherhood and female identity, childhood and happiness, but, like Ogechi’s yarn baby, it’s best to take it all of a piece.

Arimah, however, also writes strong stories that are fully rooted in reality, although none of these struck me with quite as much force as ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’. A recurring theme is the crushing of female rebelliousness and non-conformity by society. Arimah’s child and teenage characters – all female – are brilliantly unlikeable. In ‘War Stories’, Nwando’s amoral attitude to her classmates is refreshing simply because we are used to seeing little girls portrayed as nice, empathetic, vulnerable and helpless. Nwando is a breath of fresh air (as well as feeling a lot more realistic than most of the female children that I’ve read about). Similarly, our teenage narrator in ‘Wild’, with her antagonistic relationship with her cousin Chinyere, narrates in an instantly compelling voice as she gets Chinyere into more trouble than she knows. Finally, when our unnamed narrator projects her own desires for rebellion onto Mayowa in ‘Redemption’, she learns about the limits the world wants to place on both of them. ‘She wasn’t my friend. She wasn’t here to fight for me. Or love me. She was just as powerless, another daughter being sent back to her mother in disgrace… Girls with fires in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correction until the flames die out.’  Arimah presents these social strictures are the real-life counterparts of the takers of joy in ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, fitting girls into the tidy moulds that are supposed to make them women.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is out on 6th April.

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