I love short story collections. They offer readers a chance to walk a mile in so many different shoes. Each story is an opportunity to be someone different, and experience reality through the eyes of a character completely opposite in every way imaginable. The mark of a great collection is one where no matter how many characters dwell within its pages or the scenarios they experience, the reader can see herself or understand their choices. Happiness, Like Water flows with the challenge and saturates the reader with opportunities to cross international borders, social divides, and sexual orientations. While the main characters in each of the story are Nigerian women, each of their stories differ as the paths they travel range from rural roads to college cobblestones.
The collection consists of ten stories that address pretty heavy topics with a deft touch. “Fairness” deals with the psychological cruelty of a society that values fair skin, so young, beautiful women burn themselves with caustic chemicals in hopes to be found more attractive. The sheer sadness of an immigrant woman facing the desperation of attempting to escape an abusive relationship in “Shelter” only to find out she is trapped by her status is heartbreaking. “Runs Girl” has the potential to break the reader’s heart as it relates the story of a young student who becomes a prostitute to raise money to take care of her family. While this collection is fiction, the author captures the reality of so many African women who face difficult choices often compounded by cultural expectations.
Along with a mastery of character development, Okparanta infuses all the stories with the setting of her Nigerian origins and details that leap off the page. The reader feels as if they are standing in the market, the school courtyard, or the kitchen pondering the outcome of life choices. “Designs,” which is set in the American North, carries the heat of the character’s native land even as the bitter wind of betrayal wraps around them.
While the bitter swill of disappointment flows through the book, there are also triumphant tales that brings the reader in with the expectation that all will work out. The possibility of a new life with a forbidden love pulses through “America” as a bus ride to the U.S. Embassy provides the background of the character reflecting on finding a connection with a fellow teacher. The ending of “Grace” is, as the name suggests, a benediction of an older woman finding a sense of peace with a young woman redefining herself in a new country.
While the writing soars for the most part, there are some clunky moments. On occasion, the author included details that those unfamiliar with the culture will struggle with understanding, which detracted from the powerful stories. Also, some of the stories ended too abruptly for the reader to feel a sense of closure.
However, I found Happiness Like Water satisfying and enriching. The author has other works, which I look forward to enjoying as well. This is a collection I recommend and look forward to sharing with others.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.