Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut short-story collection, “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” is an impressive showcase of her talent. Packed with a dozen stories that run from fables and fairy tales to near-future dystopias, her book focuses on family, either in African communities abroad or among members of the diaspora in the United States.
Arimah’s voice is vibrant and fresh, her topics equally timely and timeless. On Twitter, she describes herself as “Nigerian . . . ish,” and her stories bring us to different parts of Nigeria, across nowhere-in-particular America, into homes that are grand and into the lives of those with no fixed address.
The title story imagines a too-near-future world where flooding has brought on a refugee crisis of epic proportions, driving home the consequences of ignoring climate change. In that world, religion, which so divides us at present, has been abandoned and replaced by a mathematical formula. This arithmetic allows for the removal of sorrows by gifted mathematicians who can “fix the equation of a person.” But as we gain a glimpse into one of their lives, we wonder at the cost of such relief brought on by abstraction and the burden created for those doing the math.
Another tale, “Who Will Greet You at Home” feels like a fable handed down by generations until it was finally captured on paper. It imagines a culture in which women must protect a faux child for a year before they give birth to their own. In desperation, after the unraveling and destruction of several attempts at a child, one woman does the forbidden: She makes her child out of the hair of others. The results are haunting and will cause you to reflect on the place children take in our minds when they are wished for but slow to come, if they ever arrive.
Indeed, mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters are central to this collection. In some stories, their relationships will break your heart. “Windfalls,” a story about women just getting by in America with a mix of deception and desperation, feels raw and true. It’s difficult to read and yet impossible to turn away.
This is a slim, rare volume that left me compelled to press it into the hands of friends, saying, “You must read this.” But resist the urge to make your way through its pages at a rapid clip. Each story here benefits from reflection before you tackle the next.
Tayla Burney is events manager at WAMU, where she curates WAMU Books.
By Lesley Nneka Arimah
Riverhead. 230 pp. $26