Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta


*This review contains some spoilers

Set during (and after) the Nigerian civil war, 1968, Under the Udala Trees is a coming of age story of young Ijeoma, who grew up in the town of Ojoto, Nigeria. Her father committed suicide during the war, after which her grief stricken mother send her away to live with “the grammar teacher” and his wife, while she goes off to find herself again.

The grammar teacher and his wife doesn’t have children and has agreed with her mother that they will take care of her, however they end up using her as a maid.  There she meets Amina, a Hausa girl, without family who most likely died during the war. Ijeoma is from the Igbo tribe and mixing with people from other tribes was frowned upon. However, the couple agreed for Amina to stay, considering she poses no problem for the family.

Ijeoma and Amina’s friendship quickly turns romantic, when she has her first sexual awakening one evening with her friend Amina. When the grammar teacher and his wife finds out about this, they informed her mother who quickly came to collect her daughter. From then onwards, Ijeoma and her mother has a strained relationship because of her relationship with Amina, however after not speaking to Ijeoma for a while, her mother decides that she can convince her to forget about Amina. Her method? The Bible. And telling her that lesbianism is an abomination.

It was a dangerous time for her and Amina’s relationship as at the time, same sex relationships were criminalized and people were beaten, burned or stoned to death. Ijeoma witnessed one such example when she was out with her second girlfriend, Ndidi, at a meeting place for their circle. Despite knowing the dangers, Ijeoma still wanted to be true to herself.

However, things change and with society and her mother’s influence, she marries her childhood friend. Her marriage was everything but happy. She has suffered in her marriage, but gained a beautiful daughter. Deciding one day that she has had enough of her abusive husband, she leaves him and returns to live with her mother and the story quickly skips a few decades where we learn that she ended up back in a relationship with Ndidi, with approval from her daughter.

Under the Udala Trees is a beautiful novel of self-discovery and forbidden love. It’s told in a simple, yet delicate/sensitive way.  It’s easy to read and the historical elements in the novel make it an interesting read. Before now, I did not know about the civil war in Nigeria. I think that book delivers an important message and I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Jonathan Ball Publishers for review consideration

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