Book review: Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta

Okparanta Under the Udala TreesOkparanta, Chinelo. Under the Udala Trees. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. 336 p. Hardcover, $26.00, ISBN 978-0544003446.

In the late 1960s, Nigeria is in the throes of civil war, and this novel’s young narrator, Ijeoma, is both witness to, and victim of, the conflict and bloodshed. After losing her father, the 11-year-old is sent away to safety by her deeply religious mother. While temporarily lodging with another family, Ijeoma falls in love with a similarly displaced girl, and we follow her entrance into adulthood.

In the intervening years, Ijeoma has deep relationships with two different women while trying to hide her sexual orientation from her staunchly conservative, domineering mother, with whom she is eventually reunited. Ijeoma is pressured relentlessly to find a husband, in line with her mother’s credo that no woman can survive on her own without a man. Ijeoma does eventually marry a childhood acquaintance, though she secretely longs for her one true love, Ndidi, who she believes has moved on with her own life. In time, Ijeoma bears a daughter and endures turbulent relations with her husband. However, by the book’s conclusion in 2014, she has found peace in all aspects of her life.

This novel is lyrically written throughout, though the first section is somewhat slow to develop. Reader patience does reap rewards, however, as the fine writing eventually underscores engrossing plot points, especially during Ijeoma’s years as a reluctant wife and mother.
However, a word of reader warning: two of the novel’s “Parts” are presented in reverse chronological order. In retrospect, I can understand the author’s probable intent in doing this, but it was initially confusing and a bit jarring. The narrative might have been just as compelling with a straight linear approach, but fortunately, the book’s momentum and ultimate power are not compromised.

Under the Udala Trees is recommended for general readers, and especially for literary and/or multicultural fiction collections. Okparanta offers us a memorable female character, embodying a universal tale transcending all national boundaries.

Cathy Ritchie
Acquisitions/Selection Services
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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