“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.”
So begins “Light,” one of the stories in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection, “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.” It is an incandescent collection of short, often absurdist stories that seem to hold an impossible amount of weight in only a few pages each. The first story, “The Future Looks Good,” draws you in slowly and then snaps shut like a venus flytrap, leaving you in pitch darkness before you’ve even registered that the story is finished. “Wild” captures how secrecy between women can turn violent in the span of a heartbeat, and how knowledge of secrets can be wielded viciously as a weapon. It complicates our understanding of forgiveness, showing how there is room for anger in forgiveness in an intensely complicated way.
Each story unfurls with grace; Arimah’s sentences are so fluid that reading them feels almost like being underwater. You don’t realize that you’re holding your breath until you find yourself inhaling sharply, needing oxygen. They urge you to realize how listening to a story can make every one of your muscles tight with tension and anticipation.
Arimah weaves in aspects from several different genres, including, but not limited to, ghost stories, magical realism and even a touch of horror. The stories get more and more absurd as they go on; in “Second Chances,” a woman rips herself out of a photograph back into real life. One of the most gut wrenching stories is “Windfalls,” which tells a story of a mother and daughter piecing together a life that mirrors a paycheck to paycheck existence — but the way they come by the paychecks will leave you with that stomach drop feeling throughout the story. Another story imagines how parents choose to mold — literally, in this case — their children, selecting ingredients and measures of sacrifice.
The titular story is reminiscent of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”; it develops in a measured way, illustrating what happens when pain becomes society’s unraveling, and how we depend on those who are strong enough to take on the pain of others to keep ourselves from unwinding completely. The last three stories are salty, some almost fairy-tale-esque but with the bitter aftertaste that comes with seeing what happens in the few seconds after the curtain drops on happily-ever-after.
“What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” is one of the best debuts of the year. Anyone still looking to fill up their summer reading list should bump this immediately to the top.