In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut story collection, her characters are besieged by snakes, ants and water, by unwanted pregnancy, by their own mothers and aunts. Most stories are set in Nigeria, and those that aren’t feature Nigerians who have moved to another country. More than one parent is lost to some kind of car accident, and ambition or infidelity force many families apart. At the root of nearly every story is grief — barely managed, overwhelming grief.
Arimah, who lives in Minneapolis, is a skillful storyteller who can render entire relationships with just a few lines of dialogue. “They told me to beat you,” an exhausted mother tells her rebellious daughter, Ada, in “Wild.” “They said since you were being raised without a father and in America of all places, if I didn’t beat you, you would go wild. And I didn’t listen.” Yet the mothers who do strike their children — Ada’s Auntie Ugo among them — fare no better. Ugo’s daughter, Chinyere, has an affair with a married man and conceives a child.
In “Buchi’s Girls,” Buchi prepares to allow her daughter to assume the identity of a dead girl in order to escape their lives as servants in a relative’s home. In “War Stories,” a mother hits her daughter after she misbehaves in school: “She spanked me, an undertaking she hadn’t performed in years. It was awkward, like running backward.” In “Windfalls,” a mother uses her daughter’s body as a tool for creating personal injury lawsuits; in “Second Chances,” a dead mother steps out of a photograph and re-enters the material world for a handful of hours — just enough to refresh the agony of losing her.
Despite its themes of grief and loss, Arimah’s prose is not without humor. In “Redemption,” a girl regards her father’s mistress: “She always wore yellow, and she looked pretty in it. Not abandon-your-only-legitimate-child pretty, but you could see what a man would see in her.” In the stunning titular story — set in a future many decades from the present — human wrists are marked to indicate class and parents’ occupation, and “Mathematician” takes on a new, transcendent meaning. Mathematicians “worked around the globe, making their living calculating and subtracting emotions, drawing them from living bodies like poison from a wound.” Arimah’s portrait of the future features “floods” that “swallow[ed] the British Isles,” and “a sea [that] replaced Europe.” In this altered, saturated landscape, the thing that hasn’t changed is the human capacity for pain. “Some Mathematicians remove pain,” Mathematician Nneoma explains. “We all fix the equation of a person.” In her compassionate exploration of grief in its many forms, Arimah considers the notion of such a “fix,” and its impossibility.
Jackie Thomas Kennedy’s writing has appeared in LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review Online and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
By: Lesley Nneka Arimah.
Publisher: Riverhead, 230 pages, $26.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. April 26, Loft Literary Center, Mpls., $10 ($5 members); free reading, 7 p.m. May 18, Barnes & Noble Galleria, Edina.