Review: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

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Under the Udala Trees is Okparanta’s debut novel about a young girl, named Ijeoma, and her story of life in Nigeria around the time of their Civil War:

One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart.

In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost? A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world.

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Okparanta wrote a story about African life that is both relatable and funny. Even though the story of Ijeoma is a tragic one, it is relatable in so many ways, especially in the way homosexuality is treated in African communities. While I grew up in a different era and country, many of the teachings and beliefs about homosexuality portrayed in the book are still prevalent in today’s communities 50+ years later. The book was also filled with many funny scenes, which really lightened the tension after some tragic moments. This made the book easier to digest, in that it didn’t come across as just another sad African story. Under the Udala Trees was like a rollercoaster with quite a few twists and turns.

The writing in this novel is something that really stands out. Okparanta explains scenes in enough detail to give you a clear picture of what’s taking place without feeling like she’s forcing the images on you.  She also manages to portray her characters in a way that highlights each character’s individual traits. In one of the scenes, you see how naïve Ijeoma is while being shown how caring and smart Ndidi is when faced with life-threatening incidences.

Under the Udala Trees also teaches its readers about the Nigerian Civil War. Like Melinda from The Book Musings, I too never knew about the Civil War in Nigeria before reading this book. You’re taught about the events that led up to the war and how the aftermath thereof affected people differently. The story of their Civil War is quite interesting and should definitely be taught to students in schools all over Africa.

Favourite Quote:

Maybe love was some combination of friendship and infatuation. A deeply felt affection accompanied by a certain sort of awe. And by gratitude. And by a desire for a lifetime of togetherness.

Overall, Under the Udala Trees is an amazing book! It’s rare to find a book that tackles issues so close to home and as deeply entrenched in African communities as this one. Okparanta made sure her debut novel was not one to forget. A definite must-read!

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