This collection has been on my radar for a while. With a title like that, it’s one that sticks out and sticks with you. But I am not often in the mood for story collections, so it stayed on the periphery for quite some time. However, I have to say, I think I am coming to appreciate short stories more and more. I had a conversation with someone about it the other day – how it’s so impressive when an author can grab you and impart lasting reactions in such a short space/time. And I think with that in mind, I’m opening up to collections more. It’s hard though, because I think in every collection there are some standouts and some that are just fine, and I end up struggling to give overall ratings. So, I will continue to do these little mini reviews for each story, which allow me to give more complete, specific reactions, to complement the “star” rating that they get.
“Girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correction till the flames die out.”
This collection was a really unique mix of genres, some folktale-like, some futurism/magical realism (ish), some contemporary literature. The settings varied from present-day Nigeria to present-day America and UK to futuristic African country-conglomerates and the protagonists featured a range of women of various ages and circumstances, all hailing from a version of Nigeria (despite current locations/situations). I don’t think I’ve ever read a cross-genre short story collection before and it was an interesting experience; a bit disjointed at times, but it allowed me to really get a feel for the breadth of the author’s skill and gave her the opportunity to really flex her creativity. At this point, here are my story-specific thoughts, and then I’ll end with some overall impressions:
The Future Looks Good – I really liked this short opening story. The cadence was fantastic and the stylistic “doesn’t see what came behind her” repetition device was used fantastically. The ending was abrupt, unexpected and striking in the best way. I gasped, a little, audibly. A solid first impression.
War Stories – This one was interesting. A quick look at the way memories stay with and affect us, as well as how they are both passed on to the next generation and simultaneously suppressed. I also thought the way “war stories” was applied both to legitimate war and childhood “games”/interactions that can equally have lifelong effects was presented in a sobering and impactful way.
Wild – A family snapshot, reinforcing the theme that everyone has problems, even if they outwardly appear not to, and that the grass is always greener on the other side. Also, a look at the different ways mother-daughter relationships can develop and play out, so the same even with different cultural expectations and so different even with similarities of disappointments and secret-keeping/putting on a show for the world outside. And a nice moment at the end about cousins/daughters coming together in support for each other under similar pressures, even through those differences.
Light – What a melancholy and poignant story about the many ways the world will dim a young girl’s light. Also, a touching story about family growing apart over distance/immigration. This one had a “before that” repetitive stylistic device that was similar to the one used in the first story and I really liked it again. Definitely one of the aspects of this collection and the author’s style that I am most appreciating.
Second Chances – This was more emotionally difficult to read than the rest, dealing with the loss of a mother, feelings of guilt related to that, and a mental health break. But it was a nice look at mother-daughter relationships, how they change with age, and how the way you interact might be something one or both regret when it’s too late. Not my favorite story of the collection though, to be honest.
Windfalls – The mother-daughter relationship at the center of the story was very unhealthy, really messed up, and my heart ached for the “you” this story was about and how she was used. So that was difficult to read. But the literary device in the story, the dark irony of the way it ended, was just too good. I loved that aspect. This was a super striking story.
Who Will Greet You at Home – Dang, there was a really creepy level to this story. Like, dolls coming to life levels of “fantastical” horror. And that was cool and different from anything in the collection so far. But I also read this with a deeper level (and maybe I was projecting something that wasn’t actually there, who knows?) that reflected some of the mother-daughter themes that are prevalent in this collection so far. There seemed to be some really interesting commentary on women’s roles as mothers: who “deserves” to be a mother, the expectations of women to be mothers and how they are prepared to be mothers, what women should “want” in a child, and a sort of magical-satirical look at what is required of women to sacrifice to be a mother and what kind of drain that is. Really a fascinating story that left me feeling quite unsettled (in a spine-chilling sort of way).
Buchi’s Girls – This one was hard to read in a more subtle way. A quiet exploration of loss and the way that loss has echoing effects through years, compounding that one moment of specific loss into something much greater and even more crushing. Also, a look at what mothers will endure for their children and the personal, emotional sacrifices they’ll make to create a more stable and safer and opportunity-filled life for them. “There was only so much a mother could ask a daughter to bear before that bond became bondage.”
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky – Whoa. I can definitely see how this story “won” the honor of titular for the collection. This is a dystopian/environmental-disaster version of the future, wherein a mathematician came up with a formula that allowed specialists to “fix the equation of a person,” including taking away the pain of traumatic memories to allow for faster “recovery” and forgetting. But there may be a flaw in the equation…and ooof that ending. This story deftly and existentially-horrifically explores the consequences of the build-up of a lifetime(s) of trauma, the dangers in the hubris of ranking traumas (comparing “meager hardship to unfathomable woes”) and the hypocrisy that is inevitable when ones faces personal trauma as opposed to objectively classifying others’. What an affecting story. Loved it.
Glory – An exploration of perspective and good luck vs bad luck and whether one is destined for either and if the path one’s life takes is based on decisions one feels propelled to make by a greater force for good or bad. Also, a look at how an initial interpretation of one’s life/future, and how that is communicated to a person, can affect one’s own outlook/decisions/interpretations moving forwards and therefore the way one experiences life. Interesting consideration of perspective, but definitely not one of my favorites of the collection. “If you can’t please the gods, trick them.”
What is a Volcano? – This is completely personal preference, but I love folktales and fairy tales (topically and atmospherically), especially ones that involve nature gods/spirits, so this story was definitely a favorite for me. A legend about the origin of volcanoes and the source of the sorrow that causes them to erupt (as well as, a bit, a bit of a myth about women that carry extra sorrow in their lives/bodies). A really fun short tale to read. “How, they wondered, can a body feel full to bursting with grief but also hollow?”
Redemption – What a finale. This story had a lot of fire in it, a lot of pent up fury and helplessness that are particular to women, especially women without financial means or a strong family support and, many times, even those women who do have those advantages. I think it was a great one to end on, as the topic and final words are definitely ones that will linger. (TW: child sexual assault, references and attempts)
This collection is particularly difficult to give overall thoughts to, because of the variety within the pages. There were a number of snapshots of “normal” lives (of many types), that provided cultural insight and compelling portrayals of people that are similar to the “making the mundane into something more” that I saw and loved in Bright (Duanwad Pimwana). Some of these were really touching and affecting, especially in regards to the mother-daughter relationships they detailed, while others were less impactful. Standouts there, for me, were: Redemption, Windfalls, and The Future Looks Good. My favorites of the collection tended to be those with a touch of the magical, like What is a Volcano?, Who Will Greet You at Home and the titular What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky. This is very personal, I think, as I love fantasy and magical realism and folklore, but maybe that’s part of the benefit of a cross-genre collection: there is something for everyone. I really appreciated the way that mother-daughter and familial relationships, as well as the many ways the world tries to put out the light of vibrant young girls, were explored in so many ways throughout this collection. And I felt a deep personal touch/voice, culturally, as Arimah took on topics of immigration and family separation and cultural differences and expectations from Nigeria to America/UK. I enjoyed this collection and a few of the stories (as noted) were quite chilling and affecting and original and will be sticking with me. I also thought the author’s voice was strong and the writing was great, so I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future works from her.