Happiness Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta, 196 pp., Mariner Books 2013, $9.96 paperback
I actually finished reading Chinelo Okparanta’s Happiness Like Water several weeks ago, but sat on the review, trying to gain some distance from the work.
Let me begin by saying that I came to the collection with high expectations. Amazon recommended it to me, based, I assume on my purchase history. I read the many reviews of the collection, which assured me of its worthiness of the $9.99 that I was prepared to fork over for the kindle edition (I opted for the kindle edition because the reviews praised Okparanta so highly that I couldn’t wait for Amazon to send the softcover through the regular mail. Through no fault of the postal service—I love my postal worker—I couldn’t tell how long that would take because Amazon has decided that since I won’t pay them $99 a year to move to the front of the line (aka, Prime) then they could take their own sweet time “preparing my package for shipment”).
But I digress…
Although I approached Happiness Like Water, a title which recalls the gorgeous and timeless novel, Like Water for Chocolate, with heady anticipation, a couple of stories in I found myself sinking into a thick sadness. That sadness turned into annoyance and finally, anger as it dawned on me about halfway through the book that my nagging aversion to continuing down the rabbit hole of Ms. Okparanta’s imagination was that it was a treasure trove of Nigerian pathos. From a wife who is bullied into marrying and staying with a man who treats her like a baby machine by the wife’s mother, to a clueless woman who is engaged to a man who carries on an affair with a white woman right beneath her nose, to yet another wife whose graduate student husband beats her and her children and is helpless to escape him, to finally—wait for it—a desperate wife who uses juju to murder pregnant women in an effort to claim their babies, the collection capitalizes on countless clichés about dysfunctional “African” male/female relationships, the centrality of (heterosexual) marriage, and the importance of (male) offspring. Simply put, I ended up feeling like I wasn’t reading anything new.
This is, of course, not to say that the issues that Okparanta raises do not persist in many families; what irks me is that the collection seems to pander to the reader who is looking for a bird’s eye-view of the pathos that, from the narratives, rings as unique to a particular group of people where tradition overrides common sense and respect for another’s humanity. I finally felt so weighed down by the craziness of the characters; in particular, the women who seemed bereft of self-possession, that I heaved a sigh of relief when the book was done. As one reviewer praising the book states, Okparanta “writes with compassion and strength for these nameless, faceless women who are unable to defend their own actions.”I ask myself, “would I want to be one of those women that Okparanta writes ‘for?'” unable to defend her own actions???!!! Heck no!!! And therein, at least in part, lies the problem.
All of this is also not to say that Ms. Okparanta is not a gifted storyteller. If she intended to pull the reader into the profound sadness that pervades every single story—and I believe she did—then the collection is a success. I just think that the female characters, seemingly willing to be blown by the cruel winds that emanate from the male characters under the auspices of patriarchy, could have dug their heels in a little more.