Zack was slim and handsome, of mixed race, and from the Midwest. He had spoken early on to me of his “protestant work ethic,” and already in those first weeks, when everybody was drinking beer from plastic cups and enjoying the good weather, I would see him putting his words into action.
Happiness, Like Water is both an apt and a paradoxical title for Chinelo Okparanta’s debut collection. In these ten stories which deal primarily in the domestic, happiness is indeed essential and elusive, but it is neither clear nor cleansing. Many of the characters can only be happy at someone else’s expense: mothers who pressure their daughters to marry rich men or barren women who prey on pregnant ones, for example.
Okparanta dedicates the book to home. Home is the center of these stories, and whether in Nigeria or the U.S., it has the power to haunt. The protagonists are Nigerian women who find themselves on the edge of some great rift. Okparanta explores their descents, surrenders, and occasional elation using quiet language and unadorned structures. Her interior focus makes the high drama of midnight robberies, murderous “old maids,” and a virgin turned escort feel commonplace in comparison with the unyielding pressure, internal and external, facing these characters.