Review: Happiness, Like Water


Short story collections are a great way to find new (and new-to-you) authors. Though they demand much less time and attention than a novel, a good set of short pieces can demonstrate a writer’s range and gifts, causing the reader to seek out more of her/his work. Chinelo Okparanta‘s 2013 debut collection, Happiness, Like Water, is a tightly-constructed collection of well-told tales that will appeal to fans of literary fiction, and send them to the internet to find her other writings (no novels yet — we can only hope some are forthcoming).

Image taken from The Story Prize blog - click through for full article.

Image taken from The Story Prize blog – click through for full article.

The ten stories in Happiness take the reader on a journey from Nigerian village life to the immigrant experience in America. This journey is not, however, an evolution or progression so much as it is an unfolding: though some of the women Okparanta writes about take journeys, they are as much journeys within as without. And at the core of those journeys are the same old struggles: how to be a woman of color (occasionally a queer woman of color) at odds with the dominant society.

The first four stories feature women struggling with these issues as they play out in Nigerian culture, with a focus on fertility (or lack thereof). The best of these is the quietly horrifying “Story, Story!,” in which the protagonist, Nneoma, introduces herself to new women at church by telling them the story of what happened to her best friend.  The tales are told uniformly in a detached, almost clinical tone, that lets the events speak for themselves without melodrama. Good horror doesn’t need it, and what Okparanta delivers here is, indeed, horror.

In the next two stories, “Runs Girl” and “America,” we see a slight shift: the protagonists are both at university, trying to enlarge their lives. However, the obstacles that plague the previous stories threaten to keep the heroines from achieving their objectives. Putting these stories–in which one woman succeeds and another is held back–next to each other turns the “work hard and succeed” trope on its ear, with the same quiet intensity.

The final four stories are set in the United States, which does not turn out to be the perfect haven of opportunity the Nigerian immigrants had hoped for. It’s not that life isn’t, in some ways, better: it’s just that the structures of oppression haven’t magically melted–just migrated. “Shelter,” the most quietly magnificent of these, deftly snuffs out a woman’s hope with just one layer of bureaucratic red tape. It is “Tumours and Butterflies,” however, that ends the collection with a bang, demonstrating how even sickness and death cannot overcome culture and habit, an uneasy truth that will sit with the reader long after s/he has closed the book.

There’s a lot to unpack in this collection, it’s true, but that is its greatest strength: Okparanta has managed to convey the wide range of Nigerian women’s experiences in ten short tales well-told, making Happiness, Like Water a must-read for anyone trying to keep up with contemporary literary fiction, as well as anyone looking to broaden their reading horizons.


No Responses Yet to “Review: Happiness, Like Water”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: