In these twelve powerful stories that embrace magical-realist elements while deploying a powerfully empathetic understanding of character and circumstance, Lesley Nneka Arimah explores how parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, navigate conflicting cultures and struggle to reconcile conflicting desires, wants, and needs.
“There was only so much a mother could ask a daughter to bear before that bond became bondage.”
Going into to this I had no idea what to expect, but the author quickly garnered my attention with her on-point writing style and her ability to capture quietly specific moments that left me head spinning in awe.
My favorite short story remains to be the second tale (“War Stories”) because it’s the one that made me initially fall in love with the storytelling. In it a father sits down with his daughter to share his war stories in order to educate and “discipline” her after an unfortunate incident at school. What fascinated and pulled me in so much with this short story in particular was the father, “whose personality and humor are of a quieter sort. ” Also, the feminist undertones in it were guaranteed to leave me satisfied.
Which leads me to the next story (“Wild”), revolved around a teenager on a visit back to Nigeria and the tenuous sisterhood she and her cousin attain after a disastrous night out shifts them onto uneasy new ground. It’s it this story that I came to love the writing style, which I noticed to be my favorite kind of eerily specific. Especially in this next paragraph with the main character holding her cousin’s baby boy:
“He likes you.” She didn’t sound like she liked that. Or me.
“What can I say, I have a way with handsome young men. And aren’t you handsome? Aren’t you deliciously handsome?” The boy squealed and giggled as I picked him up and pretended to snack on his arms and belly. When I stopped, he settled his head into my neck.
“He must be tired,” Chinyere said. “Let me take him.”
She got up, pulled him out of my arms, and settled him in the hollow of the mattress she’d just vacated. A week ago you couldn’t have told me I would enjoy the weight of a child or feel intense satisfaction when he gripped my shirt as his mother removed him. ”
The detailed last line, capturing that shared moment with a child, is one I truly forgot I loved until I reread it in the above.
And not only was the writing great, but we also had some magical-realism elements thrown in different tales and fables. Like in “Second Chances,” when a daughter greets her mother’s return from the dead with disbelief and anger because she appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot. Also, this story started out with an incredible paragraph:
“Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years, not since Nigeria, when she was pregnant with my younger sister, though not yet showing, and fell down the concrete steps to our house, ripping the dress from hem to thigh. Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.”
It had everything you’d expected (and also not expect) out of a tale like this: sadness, melancholiness, and pensiveness. Also, when the mother finally interacts with her eldest daughter, I was a goner:
“Nnwam, what do you want from me?”
I want you to boil the chicken with onions and salt. I want you to melt the palm oil on medium heat and sizzle ogbono till it dissolves. I want you to cough when the pepper tickles your throat. I want you to sprinkle in crayfish so tiny I believed, at age four, they’d been harvested half-formed from their mother’s womb. I want you to watch the ogbono thicken the water and add the stockfish and the okra and the spinach and the boiled meat and the salt you never put enough of and call us when it’s ready and say grace and be gracious and forgive me.
The answer I give: the lopsided shrug I manage when I can’t find words.”
It was sad and specific and tragic. I loved it.
Speaking of which, “Light” is just as harrowing as the aforementioned tale. In it Enebeli Okwara struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And what most struck a chord with me was the ending of the story and all that led up to it. Because of the straining mother-daughter relationship, and in an effort to grow closer to her daughter, the mother, who’s living in America for her education and career, requests her to move in. And so the closing paragraph from the father’s pov really struck me:
“But before all this, before the elders are called in, before even his own father sides with his wife, and his only unexpected ally is his wife’s sister. Before he bows to the pressure of three generations on his back. Before he sobs publicly in the Murtala Muhammed airport, cries that shake his body and draw concern and offers of water from passersby. Before he spends his evenings in the girl’s room, sitting with the other things she left behind, counting down the time difference till they can Skype. Before she returns from school and appears on his screen more subdued than he’s ever seen her. Before he tries to animate her with stories of the lovelorn boy who keeps asking after her. Before she looks offscreen as though for coaching and responds, Please, Daddy, don’t talk to me like that. Before she grows cautious under the mothering of a woman who loves but cannot comprehend her. Before she quiets in a country that rewards her brand of boldness, in her black of body, with an incredulous fascination that makes her put it away. Before all that, she is eleven and Enebeli and the girl sit on the steps to the house watching people walk by their ramshackle gate. They are playing azigo and whenever the girl makes a good move she crows in a very unladylike way and yells, In your face! and he laughs every time. He does not yet wonder where she gets this, this streak of fire. He only knows that it keeps the wolves of the world at bay and he must never let it die out.”
Some stories, however, were a bit harder to digest for me because of that specificness that managed to physically sting me. Like in “Windfalls,” when a mother drops her kid in public places – multiple times throughout the years – for settlement money in court. Or in “Who Will Greet You at Home,” when a woman exhausted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair.
But just like with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, the short stories in here are characterised by their vividness, immediacy and the author’s seemingly endless ability to conjure worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different. I cannot wait for what Lesley Nneka Arimah will bring out next.