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KJ Orr

One of the pleasures of reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection is the feeling of being thrown off balance: not knowing where this playful and adventurous new talent will take you next. The 12 stories that make up What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky are set in Nigeria and the US, sometimes moving between the two (the author was born in the UK, has lived in Nigeria and is now based in the States). Arimah’s focus is on the lives of girls and women, and while her perspective is often bleak, the collection is bracing and varied.

Here is a debut writer showing serious range – drawing on realism, magical realism, the fantastic and speculative, myth and fable. In the title story, Nneoma, a “grief worker” in a post-apocalyptic future, possesses the power to draw grief and sadness out of people “like poison from a wound”. In “Second Chances”, a young woman’s mother returns from the dead, opening up the possibility of a longed-for reconciliation and forgiveness. In “Who Will Greet You at Home” a childless woman working in a hair salon makes herself a baby out of human hair. While the scenarios that Arimah depicts are at times fantastical, they are always rooted in human need and longing.

The seam of bleakness running through the book concerns the diminishment of women: an outcome which starts to appear almost inevitable, even for girls born brave and quic ...

One of the pleasures of reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection is the feeling of being thrown off balance: not knowing where this playful and adventurous new talent will take you next. The 12 stories that make up What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky are set in Nigeria and the US, sometimes moving between the two (the author was born in the UK, has lived in Nigeria and is now based in the States). Arimah’s focus is on the lives of girls and women, and while her perspective is often bleak, the collection is bracing and varied.

Here is a debut writer showing serious range – drawing on realism, magical realism, the fantastic and speculative, myth and fable. In the title story, Nneoma, a “grief worker” in a post-apocalyptic future, possesses the power to draw grief and sadness out of people “like poison from a wound”. In “Second Chances”, a young woman’s mother returns from the dead, opening up the possibility of a longed-for reconciliation and forgiveness. In “Who Will Greet You at Home” a childless woman working in a hair salon makes herself a baby out of human hair. While the scenarios that Arimah depicts are at times fantastical, they are always rooted in human need and longing.

The seam of bleakness running through the book concerns the diminishment of women: an outcome which starts to appear almost inevitable, even for girls born brave and quick-witted with a “streak of fire”. The story “Light”, a tender portrayal of a father-daughter relationship, opens: “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.” In one quietly heart-breaking line, his daughter “becomes aware that the world requires something other than what she is”.

Arimah explores women’s dispossession from many angles, including the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters and the complicated dynamics of female friendship. In “Redemption”, a young servant, Mayowa, who “walked as though the earth spun to match her gait”, is punished for her audacity. In “Wild”, two cousins are rebuked by their mothers for bad behaviour: both struggle with the consequences of their boldness as they try to find their place in the world. In “Buchi’s Girls”, a daughter once thought of by her father as a hard diamond becomes reduced to “a jumpy mouse” when his death leaves the family dependant on others.

Arimah keeps her readers on their toes, and the disorientation can come with great rewards. While at times her use of narrative or rhetorical devices brings a degree of self-consciousness to the page, it also brings energy, momentum and humour. Some stories hold readers at a distance; others address them directly; some pull them close into the physical and emotional realms of the characters – and some of the stories do all of these at once. Overall, the collection offers a rare combination of daring and nuance.

Short stories can cover unexpected distances in a brief space of time – and at best, in this collection, the effect can be striking. In “War Stories”, inflections of humour are superseded as the story takes an increasingly troubled course. The passage of time is compressed as a father’s accounts of traumatic experiences as a young soldier sit alongside his 12-year-old daughter’s recent experiences at school, with the juxtaposition of these elements carrying real charge. In “The Future Looks Good”, Arimah telescopes time as she explores history in a very different way, presenting the dizzying stream of past events and family history that have led a young woman, Ezinma, towards the moment they will catch up with her. Here, and elsewhere, Arimah captures a sense of time and change as chaotic, fast and unsparing – slippery, and out of our hands.

She is also skilled at stopping time, and allowing the reader, along with her characters, to dwell: offering the consolation that can come with getting lost in a moment, and paying attention to something or someone as vivid, insistent and vital as the unnamed girl in “Light” who, winning in a board game against her father, delights him as she “crows in a very unladylike way and yells, In your face!”

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