Not Brand New, But Gripping & Impressive – A Review Of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” by Jerry Chiemeke

“I wanted to tell them about how Anita had started the Girl Club after claiming that her father had sent her expensive bras from London edged with barely-there lace and soft ribbons and powdered with fairy dust, and how she made the rule that only girls with bras could be in the Girl Club and that if you weren’t in the Girl Club you couldn’t sit in the Girl Area and you had to play with the boys. Anita would confirm who was Girl by escorting each applicant behind the school to check if she was wearing the required undergarment. They’d emerge short minutes later, the Bra Princess followed by her newest lady-in-waiting.”

Lesley Nneka Arimah, born in the U.K and currently living in the U.S.A, is a darling in modern literary circles, and not without good reason. Her stories have been published in magazines like Granta and The New Yorker, she is the winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize For Africa, and she has been a Caine Prize finalist for two consecutive years. Her writing style is daring, with significant appeal to a younger generation of readers, and literary enthusiasts consistently rub their palms in anticipation for what she churns out next.

Weeks earlier, I was part of a panel discussing something in the lines of “New African Literary Voice”. At that panel, I cited Lesley’s work, and asked if her prowess would have been met with the same level of appreciation if she was living in Nigeria, but I was quickly hushed by a participant who stated that her book was going to be published by Farafina, one of Nigeria’s leading publishers. I took note of that, and once the book dropped, I wasted no time in getting myself a copy.

Lesley’s full-length debut, “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” is a collection of twelve short stories, a number of them previously published in notable literary magazines. In a little less than two hundred pages, she attempts to capture various perspectives to life in Nigeria and the Diaspora, with a little reliance on the passage of time. “The Future Looks Good” is a story spanning three generations which dwells on sisterly affection and toxic romance, “War Stories” juxtaposes a father’s post-war trauma with a daughter’s quest for popularity amidst school shenanigans, “Wild” sees a rebellious lady ‘condemned’ to spend holidays in Nigeria and forced to bond with a cousin who can’t quite bear the ‘shame’ of being a single mother, and “Light” is a narrative about a girl whose wings are clipped by societal expectation as her doting father watches in horror. “Second Chances” has a grown-up not taking kindly to her mother’s re-emergence after being dead for eight years, while “Windfalls” is a piece about a mother who makes money off her daughter’s public place accidents.

In “Who Will Greet You At Home”, a young woman who works in a hair salon nurses babies made from wool and hair, while “Buchi’s Girls” chronicles the struggles of a widow who tries to take her of her daughters under the roof of a mean brother-in-law. The title story, “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky”, is one of mathematicians who calculate grief and subtract sadness from emotions in a future where continents are submerged and Biafra peacefully co-exists with Britain. In “Glory”, a lady bedeviled by ill-luck all her life runs into a man whose fortunes are the exact opposite but she is unsure of what to make out of it, a war lasting centuries ensues between the god of ants and the goddess of rivers in “What Is A Volcano?”, and a teenager is fascinated by the guts and sheer wit of her neighbor’s maid in “Redemption”.

Lesley’s collection has females as lead characters in all the stories, even the one involving the elements (“What Is A Volcano?”), but that is by no means a negative thing, and in any case, she owes it to no one how to structure her characterisation. The book explores a number of relevant themes too, from societal expectations of women to family bonds, from disillusionment to growing up in a world that is indifferent to a given gender, from chasing dreams to simply trying to get by. There is less of theories or political agenda, and an abundance of emotions and personal journeys here.

If, however, you were expecting to see flying goats or fowls bearing horns in these pages, brace yourself up for disappointment.  Only three of the stories in this collection come with the speculative prose that has endeared Lesley to younger readers, the other nine are pretty regular well-written stories bordering on love, family and some of the other usual stuff. When I purchased the book, I was gearing up for something madly different, but I found that it was not all that crazy. The book felt like a popular music artist treating us to a blues album after releasing two chart-topping hip hop singles earlier on. Scratch that, it felt like John Mayer settling for a stripped down acoustic album after teasing fans with electric guitars, or Coldplay releasing a pop record after wowing music enthusiasts with all the synthetic drums that characterise rock music. Good as the songs may sound, if it is different from the genre you anticipated, you’d still feel hard done by.

This is not to say, though, that “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” is a bad literary offering. On the contrary, it is well-scribbled, meaningful, and while I would have loved to see dragons breathing fire, I can actually afford to read it twice, and I don’t share that compliment with many books. The stories here are darker than those in Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, they come with more urgency than the ones in Chinelo Okparanta’s “Happiness Like Water”, and even where I am not left with my mouth gaping wide, I will not be quick to lend out this book, at all.

Rating: 7/10
Jerry Chiemeke is a lawyer, writer, editor and critic. He has been published in The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Viva Naija, True Nollywood Stories and Pulse Nigeria. A lover of finger foods, Jerry runs a column on Bellanaija where he reviews African literature on behalf of Okadabooks. He is the winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Book Reviews and Literary Criticism.