In real life, mental illnesses are caused by brain chemistry, genetic predisposition, life experiences—things that can be rationally understood, for the most part. It’s only in fiction that I see someone driving themselves insane. At least, this is what I saw in Selja Ahava’s disturbing Things that Fall from the Sky (translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). In this novel, two characters contemplate Chance while a third loses herself to mixed up memories of her lost mother, TV mysteries about a Belgian detective, and fairy tales. I kept reading because I wanted to know if this trio would make it out the other side of their tangled thoughts.
Saara is around eight years old when her mother dies in a freak accident. She and her father, Pekka, are whisked away by Auntie Annu—who somehow wins the lottery twice. The sudden shock of his wife’s death sends Pekka into a helpless, angry spiral. Saara is mostly left to fend for herself, especially after Auntie Annu’s second lottery win sends her into her own confused funk. As I read the first two sections, which cover the immediate aftermaths of Saara’s mother’s death and Annu’s second win, I felt so angry at these adults on Saara’s behalf. I can understand that everyone needs to grieve no matter how old they are, but someone should make sure that any children are guided through their grief so that the child doesn’t, say, become obsessed with having chalk outlines of herself drawn on the floor.
The last third of Things that Fall from the Sky is set four years after the death of Saara’s mother. Auntie Annu has gone off on a trip around the world looking for stories about people who have really weird luck and/or experience really strange disasters (following a letter exchange with a Scot who was struck by lightning five times). Pekka has partnered with a Swedish woman. They’re expecting a child with a rare, usually fatal genetic condition. Sadness and bad luck just can’t seem to leave this family alone. The last third ended up being the most bizarre of the three sections as it is narrated by Saara, who is haunted by her mother and her mother’s mixed up fairy tales.
I…don’t know quite what to make of Things that Fall from the Sky. I wanted to read it because the publisher’s description led me to expect that was about Luck and Chance and Fate. I wanted to follow characters who pondered their rises and falls, like a modern version of the medieval Wheel of Fortune. Instead, I had a novella about how the vagaries of life can push people over the edge. Some characters are shaped by their experiences into someone new. One was still transforming, but I wasn’t sure what Saara was going to become. If Ahava were an America, I would have predicted that everything would end up alright for Saara and her family. Because Ahava is Finnish, I don’t have a lot of hope.