Review: What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

what it means.jpgThe Premise: the daughters, wives and mothers in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s remarkable debut collection find themselves in extraordinary situations: a woman whose mother’s ghost appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot, another who, exhausted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair, a ‘grief worker’ with a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price. What unites them is the toughness of the world they inhabit, a world where the future is uncertain, opportunities are scant, and fortunes change quicker than the flick of a switch.

Thoughts: this has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2017 and it didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of short story collections (a recent development, perhaps due to my dwindling attention span) and what I particularly liked about this one was the way Arimah manages to balance variety with consistency; sometimes the stories of a collection are too samey but, equally, if they’re too different, it’s hard to flit between wildly varied plots. This is managed really well here, with an intriguing mix of emotive family-based narratives and some beautifully executed magical realism. If you’ve read and enjoyed Roxane Gay’s excellent Difficult Women, I recommend this.

Relationships are a key feature, with mothers and daughters cropping up frequently, along with culture clashes between the USA and Nigeria that reminded me of the imperious Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fathers feature too, with the story Light having a particularly strong effect on me. There’s a focus throughout on close bonds and the claustrophobic effect these can produce, also seen in the story Buchi’s Girls. Who Will Greet You At Home is exactly the kind of odd and unsettling story I seek out in collections like this one; its focus on a woman making a baby out of whatever she can find is both heartbreaking and creepy, justifying other comparisons I’ve seen between Lesley Nneka Arimah’s writing and the stories of Helen Oyeyemi. I loved the title story, with its portrayal of a strange, futuristic world in which people are curiously divided and reliant on a Formula to make sense of the world around them; this story is one that left me yearning for more, desperate for a full-length novel about the Mathematicians and an Earth redrawn by environmental catastrophe.

In Conclusion: What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is definitely a book I want to revisit. Sometimes I feel like reading on my Kindle prevents me from fully immersing myself in a story, and I’ll ensure I buy a ‘proper’ copy of this so I can appreciate once again Arimah’s exquisite prose and glorious narratives.

Here I Stand edited by Amnesty International UK

here i standThe Premise: a collection of short stories and poems with a focus on the freedoms and rights that can often be taken for granted. Technically YA, I suppose, but very hard-hitting.

Thoughts: I am writing this just after finishing Here I Stand and I’m still feeling quite emotionally affected by it. None of the stories is an easy read: a fact highlighted early on as the first story, ‘Harvester Road’ by John Boyne, focuses on hidden child abuse and its consequences. It’s one of many harrowing stories in the collection, alongside ‘The Colour of Humanity’ by Bali Rai and ‘Love is a Word, Not a Sentence’ by Liz Kessler, both of which centre on the tragic consequences of a dramatic change in a friendship. The stories are superbly written, but upsetting; “but” is an odd word to use, because they’re supposed to be upsetting.

There is hope to be found in other parts of the collection, but it’s often fleeting. ‘Stay Home’ by Sita Brahmachari offers the reader a distressing premise, but a note of optimism later on. It must be said, however, that Here I Stand is more of a rallying call than a message of hope; we should feel enraged by what we read here and motivated to change things, which means the stories can’t make the reader feel comfortable.

Two stories I found particularly compelling were Chibundu Onuzo’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Redemption’ by Ryan Gattis, both of which focus on legal matters. Onuzo focuses her story on a Nigerian barrister working in London, representing a young boy in court for gang-related crime, while Gattis’ story, while set in San Francisco, could almost be a sequel to Onuzo’s, showing us a lawyer’s perspective on his client, a man sentenced to death, recently moved from years in solitary confinement to the general population of San Quentin prison. Both stories address justice systems and their inherent injustices in ways which are hugely effective and thought-provoking.

I also want to mention Matt Haig’s surreal but poignant ‘The Invention of Peanut Butter,’ which seems to take Dr Seuss’ The Lorax as its inspiration for a story in which power can be seen to corrupt. The fairy tale-esque approach is rather lovely, which only makes the darker end to the story all the more unsettling. What many of the stories here do brilliantly is expose the ways in which we as a society allow injustices to happen and continue happening, simply by turning a blind eye or convincing ourselves it isn’t our business. ‘When the Corridors Echo’ by Sabrina Mahfouz is a hugely topical story in light of the way in which Muslims are often discussed in the media, while ‘Bystander’ by Frances Hardinge is a devastating piece of short fiction, perfectly exemplifying the attitude of “it’s not my problem.” These two stories are counterpoints, one exposing hyper-vigilance and intrinsic racism, while the other shows a lack of involvement that is heartbreaking.

In Conclusion: I read this book either side of the terrorist attack in Manchester, and so I did so with a backdrop of media debate about refugees, and religion, and deliberate infringement of our freedoms. Here I Stand seems like a perfect book for these times; it’s not going to make anyone feel better about the state of the world, but it will certainly wake us all up. I’m already planning to use it in teaching next year; I think my students need to hear these stories.

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

the-lottery-and-other-storiesI love Shirley Jackson; in recent months I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, Hangsaman (review here) and, of course, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’ve also been familiar with some of her short fiction, having taught The Lottery, Charles and After You, My Dear Alphonse at school for the past few years. I love my students’ responses to these stories, especially The Lottery, as they settle into thinking they know what’s going on, only to be horribly traumatised by the ending. It really makes it worth going to school.

Like Hangsaman, the stories here deal with the boredom and frustration of being a woman in the 1940s, in the desperation of an apparently jilted woman in The Daemon Lover and the existential pain of a precocious but patronised teen in The Intoxicated. I don’t know a huge amount about Jackson’s life (although, once I’ve read all her fiction, I’ll be investing in the recent biography), but it’s easy to view the limited lives of her protagonists as a reflection of her own feelings. Some of the stories are oddly uneventful, like The Villager, in which a woman pretends to be the owner of a home she’s actually visiting to view furniture. I see this uneventfulness as deliberate on Jackson’s part, using stories half told to reflect the lives half lived by women at the time (I thought of that phrase earlier and am embarrassingly pleased with it).

Here, we also see quiet, almost indiscernible battles between women in Trial by Combat, A Fine Old Firm and Flower Garden; women are the centre of all these narratives, and yet are completely isolated in their predicaments, as it clearly isn’t the acceptable thing for any of them to voice their unhappiness. Similarly, Elizabeth shows a woman fighting to keep her place in society, battling against being replaced in her job; although dependent on a man for her career, she’s the most independent of Jackson’s protagonists, and it’s clear how much it costs her emotionally.

Both After You, My Dear Alphonse and Flower Garden show a progressive attitude towards race; the white mother in the former is humiliated by the narrator for her condescending attitudes towards her young son’s black friend, while the latter shows a woman ostracised by her community for daring to treat a black man as a human being. Bearing in mind that these stories were written in the 1940s, Jackson’s themes seem highly modern; while it’s The Lottery that is seen as the controversial one, there’s plenty of other ideas in the collection to be impressed by. The Lottery obviously shocks in its late turn towards ritualistic murder, but other common sinister tropes are on view here too, like creepy children in Charles and The Renegade, in which two young kids gleefully contemplate how their dog might be put down.

I think I’ll have to invest in the Dark Tales collection for more of Jackson’s spooky stories, but there’s real satisfaction to be found here too. There’s so much beneath the surface in Jackson’s writing; the iceberg metaphor often employed to analyse writing is definitely applicable here. If you’ve not read Jackson’s short fiction, do it.

Are you a Shirley Jackson fan too? Or have I convinced you to read her? This would make my day.