Scheming mothers and selfish husbands, fathers, and brothers domineer over the sensitive women of Happiness, Like Water, Nigerian-born Chinelo Okparanta’s debut short-story collection. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Okparanta was named one of Granta’s six New Voices in 2012. It’s a fitting honor: the unsparing stories of Happiness, Like Water show Okparanta to be a champion of young, frequently misunderstood female protagonists whose voices are too often stifled. In many of these tales, Okparanta’s women struggle to control their fate in the face of oppressive circumstances.
Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in “Wahala!” a story in which a young woman’s inability to conceive turns her husband and mother into co-conspirators. They bring Ezinne to a local dibia (healer) for a session with oils and elixirs and then goad her into hosting a big dinner to ward off any residual “negative energy.” It’s all a prelude to what Nneka and her son-in-law Chibuzo hope will be a swift impregnation. “What with all the safety measures having been taken—the healing and then precautionary dinner—he could see no reason why she wouldn’t be eager,” Chibuzo reasons before forcing himself upon his wife that very night. As he does so, his mother-in-law listens to Ezinne’s moans of pain outside their bedroom door with a smile. It’s a horrifying final image—one presaged by the story’s title, which summons a Nigerian pidgin expression meaning “trouble.”
That dark picture of “trouble” captures another recurring theme in Okparanta’s work: the destructiveness of unrealized desires. In “Fairness,” a young girl absorbs from her mother an obsession with light skin, which leads to a gruesome encounter with bleach. In “Story, Story!” a spinster’s unfulfilled craving for a child drives her to murder. In “Runs Girl,” a daughter who wants to provide her ailing mother with the best health care is driven into prostitution. These protagonists want something just out of reach, and end up being the unintentional authors of their own astringent tragedies.
In other words, be careful what you wish for. But there are two notable exceptions to this old maxim. In the stories “America” and “Grace,” it’s love that redeems. These are no simple love stories, though; both feature fraught same-sex romances. “Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing,” Nnenna, who’s fallen for a brilliant woman named Gloria, reflects in “America.” Nnenna is a schoolteacher, but Gloria’s career has since catapulted her off the continent to far away America. As Gloria’s absence stretches from months into years, Nnenna weighs her passion for Gloria against all that she might lose if she leaves her country to follow her heart. In “Grace,” an American professor falls in love with a young Nigerian student named Grace. Her feelings are returned, but Grace’s family has already found her a groom, and Grace appears unwilling to defy them. The knowledge of love, if not its actual realization—merely “the verge of joy”—must suffice. It’s no happy ending; Okparanta is reaching for something more challengingly opaque. These characters are ultimately defined by the inner victories they achieve. It’s for the reader to decide what those private triumphs are worth.
None of these tales, however, quite live up to the bar set by the collection’s first story, “On Ohaeto Street.” Here, Okparanta follows a young couple, Chinwe and Eze, from the early days of their courtship through the conclusion of their divorce. When Eze first arrives on their doorstep “offering the good news of God’s Kingdom,” Chinwe’s mother (impressed with his bright smile and crisp trousers) humors the young man. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses were always coming around in those days,” mother and daughter laugh afterward. “And it was funny that they had actually invited one of them in.” It’s a moment notable for its tenderness and levity, both of which steadily disintegrate as the story proceeds. Chinwe’s mother encourages Eze to visit again and again, and Chinwe doesn’t protest when Eze asks to marry her; she even relents when he suggests she become a Jehovah’s Witness, too. They move into a new home in a posh part of town, and it seems that all has gone just as they have planned: they have the home, the cars, and the big parties of a young couple on the make.
But when armed robbers break into the house, their union is confronted with an unexpected test. The robbery scene is brilliantly wrought in its detail. As the robbers drag Eze out to the courtyard to hand over his prized luxury car, the “505 SRS” (“which rivalled the BMW”), time stops for Chinwe. She knows he loves nothing more than that car; after all, “there were only two of them in the whole of Nigeria, the other owner being a ‘big’ man, a governor of one of the other states,” as Eze often reminds her. Okaparatna draws out the moment for maximal effect: “In any case, the way she tells the story, some more time passes, quiet time, and Chinwe allows herself to get lost in her thoughts.” These slow thoughts provide a detailed map of Chinwe’s response to the crisis as she discovers the true character of the man she’s married to. “Just give them the car and spare our lives,” she thinks. In the silence her thoughts turn despairing: “she knows she’s no match for the car.” As she had feared, Eze refuses to give up the 505. And so, after the robbers are scared off by the gunshot of a neighbor, Chinwe announces the marriage is over.
It is Chinwe’s quiet evolution—charted in the long moments that she waits to see if she and her husband will live or die—that makes the story unforgettable, particularly because the ability to change is something many of Okparanta’s characters lack. The women of “Grace” entertain the prospect of real change—and hesitate. Similarly, the unfaithful fiancé of “Design” experiences just one sharp moment of self-awareness about the nature of his own adulterous lust for an American colleague near that story’s close—but Okparanta stops short, ending the story before his realization can sink in or lead to action. That’s not to say that emotional sophistication is always a virtue in fiction. For some characters, like the girl craving light skin in “Fairness” or the murderess in “Story! Story!” the stubborn inability to repent is precisely the point. It’s what makes their tales part parable—they’re cautionary, meant to frighten, chasten, and linger like a bad dream. Still, one wonders about the depths that might’ve been discovered if Okparanta allowed a few more of her characters the chance to get lost in their thoughts—and risk real change—instead. When Chinwe tells Eze she’s leaving, “It comes out as a whisper, and Eze continues to speak, because he doesn’t hear her.” But her voice couldn’t be more clear.
Happiness Like Water, by Chinelo Okparanta; 208 pp., Mariner Books, $15.