Short Stories 366:142 — “Buchi’s Girls,” by Lesley Nneka Arimah

coverI’m pretty sure now that What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is trying to break my heart, one story at a time. It’s doing so incredibly skillfully, and with stories about people—usually mothers-and-daughters—in terrible situations finding a way to eke out a sliver of hope or dignity, but it’s still breaking my damn heart. Such is the case with “Buchi’s Girls” where we meet a widowed woman, her two daughters, and the life she’s now living in her wealthy brother-in-law’s home.

The layers are uncovered slowly, at a pace that rubs salt into the previous wound and then wounds again, as Buchi’s life, her husband, an accident, and her daughters unfold during a single day that will end with a major change. She is more-or-less acting as hired help for her sister in order to stay in their large home, and her daughters—one is now voluntarily mute, the other desperately tries to do whatever she can to make sure they’re allowed to stay—are her central concern. She cannot afford to send them to a proper school. She cannot afford anything. And as the story progresses, we learn that includes her dignity, but not her desire to find a way—any way—to help her daughters.

All the stories in this collection have this familial core to them, and while I’m the last person moved by the holding up of family as sacrosanct, I think what Lesley Nneka Arimah does so damn well is show how particular families work, rather than some sort of over-arching “every family” ideal, and the end result is my complete buy-in to these stories. Y’know, despite the ongoing crushing of the heart.

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