Review of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.”

Of all the books on my eagerly anticipated Christmas list last year, I have to admit that Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky wasn’t particularly high up on it. I’d have been pleased if I got it and nonplussed if I hadn’t. Though the collection of short stories had been hugely critically acclaimed, in all honesty, it didn’t sound tremendously interesting or captivating from the blurb. When I eventually got round to reading it last week, however, I soon got a lesson in the age old advice to not judge a book by its cover (or blurb). It was simply stunning. These stories, some mere anecdotes and other lengthy and full of craft, are fragments from a time that simultaneously was and will some day be; snippets from daily life in Nigeria and Nigerian-American immigrants. In a year where so much of fiction was seemingly centred around the fantastical and make-believe, it was somewhat refreshing to read a (albeit dark, deeply socially aware and dystopian) slice of life book concerning intricate and complex people and familial relationships. There must be something incredible in the Nigerian water – its writers are simply phenomenal storytellers.

From the offset of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Arimah makes it pessimistically clear that darkness and mistrust lurk around every mysterious corner of her imagined present and future Nigeria, a place that has become blighted and stripped bare by years of geopolitical conflict and the after-effects of rampant climate change. The eponymous story explores such matters and theorizes on what could (will?) happen when the time comes where the land becomes so uninhabitable that the populace are forced to live in the same sustainable areas of land, piled together like sardines, leading to inevitable bubbling rage and prejudice against those who were displaced. Through this misery, young mathematician and story protagonist Nneoma manipulates and utilises the discovery of an infinite string of numbers referred to as “The Formula”, an equation that seems to explain all existing things, including the “equation of a person”, whereby the Formula seeks to fix a person’s heart by obscure mental processes through which they are relieved of their pain and negative emotions.

Indeed, enduring and overcoming heartbreak, suffering and immense vulnerability are the most common themes in the collection, especially when applied to its female characters and broader collective. Unhealthy amounts of grief and loss underpin and intertwine each story; almost all Arimah’s protagonists and major characters are missing at least one parent and are consequently forced to live with forbidding family members who are abjectly cruel and hardened by the increasingly impossible world around them. This exploration of family dynamics and mistrust is one that seems to fascinate the author, and one which she spends a devoted amount of time questioning. In particular, Arimah is transfixed by questions of generational rifts and differences. Patronization, dictatorships and condescension run deep in almost every family; the youth totally ignore the warnings of the old and are severely punished for doing so, such as when Bibi ignores her mother’s order that she not get involved with a man who she deems is from a bad family. Arimah writes that when circumstances play out the way Bibi’s mother expected, Bibi isn’t pitied or sympathized with, she’s judged: “… the reunion isn’t tender. Bibi’s right eye is almost swollen shut and her mother’s mouth is pressed shut and they neither look at nor speak to each other.” In further retaliation for her disobediance and stupidity, an outraged uncle insists that Bibi’s pet chicken be killed. In all such stories, Arimah encourages and emphasises the view of the lawless land as a catalyst for lawless behaviour, especially the exploitation of young women, as shown in a detailed anecdote in one story telling of a girl who complains of being sexually harassed by a minister and being denounced as a filthy liar by the community, with not even her mother supporting her.

The lonesome, nuanced essence of the mother-daughter dynamic is further explored in my favourite of the stories, Windfalls. The pair struggle through dystopian Nigerian life barely managing, getting by on a mixture of the sympathy of strangers (that often veers towards prostitution) and faking accidents to con others out of money in personal injury suits. As the mother coos to the daughter in the opening lines: “The first time you fell, you were six. Before then, you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity. You have been living off these falls for years.” Windfalls delivers an incredibly poignant, forceful and yet strangely beautifully presented juxtaposition between the reality of horrific parent on child abuse and the natural parental urge to love and nurture that same child. It is a juxtaposition that underpins the greater issues and major focus the entire collection seeks to address, and serves as a fictional, damning metaphor for the way humans deal with one another in the real world, and the damage we are dealing to our home daily seemingly with little thought for what we will leave to our children, or their children, or theirs.

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