The opening story of What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short fiction, sets the tone for the revelatory experience that awaits readers. “The Future Looks Good,” a chilling tale about a pair of Nigerian sisters and the abusive husband the older one is married to, packs into eight short pages a father who hot-wired cars in his youth, the 1967-1970 Nigerian War, and childhood memories that torment the now-adult younger sister. These works, which range from speculative fiction to African mythology, demonstrate Arimah’s gift for telling detail and odd twists and shows the lasting influence of Nigerian politics on its characters, even those who have spent most of their lives in America.
A couple of the stories don’t quite gel, but the highlights are jewels, among them Windfalls, with a 15-year-old girl whose widowed mother forces her to fake falls in grocery stores so that they can collect monetary settlements; Who Will Greet You at Home, a futuristic tale of a society in which “motherless girls” form babies out of tough materials such as raffia and hope that they will be blessed into life; and the title story, in which the protagonist, one of 2400 people called Mathematicians in the mid-21st century, uses a special formula to remove negative emotions from paying clients, only for its accuracy to be questioned when a man plummets to his death. This astonishing book is one of the better debuts in recent memory.
An edited version of this review appeared in Shelf Awareness.