Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta (book review)

Review by Florence Vella

“If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story to tell”.

In the midst of the 1968 civil war in Ojoto, Nigeria, sits a two-story yellow house guarded by thickets of rose and hibiscus. The roofs of the house covered with palm fronds for camouflage. This was Ijeoma’s home.

It had become routine for them now, emerging from the bunker behind their house once the bomber engines had passed. Walking over fallen tree branches, pieces of zinc and toppled roofs. Only one day, Ijeoma and her mother walked back into their home, over shattered glass, to a sight they will never forget.

Ijeoma stops in her tracks one afternoon under the Udala tree after noticing that she’s being followed by a girl on her way back home from the shop. Amina being a Hausa, the mortal enemies of Igbo’s, the two should be enemies, however, they swiftly become friends. They’d bath out by the tap under the vast night sky together, both of them looking into each other’s faces amongst the grasshoppers hopping, fireflies buzzing, crickets singing their songs, and leaves rustling in the breeze.

Questions like floating bubbles formed in Ijeoma’s head. While everyone at church on Sundays nodded, cried “Amen”, and clapped after everything Father Godfrey said, she would look around, confused as to why no one would ask him to explain anything.

What if Bible stories were just allegories? she thought. Just because one type of event was documented in the Bible, it doesn’t mean all other possibilities were forbidden.

She would rise from her bed and kneel by its edge at night, asking God to help her turn her thoughts away from Amina, to turn her instead onto the path of righteousness. Using prayer as a method of dousing her desires.

Self-purification was now the goal.

As time did what time does, no matter how much we try to go against the truth about who we are, it creeps out in the end. So, when one afternoon, a woman came into her mother’s shop with lingering eyes, Ijeoma could not resist the community she never knew existed. A church converted at night time… soon hiding in a bunker once again. Stood quietly, breathes hushed, but this time they’re not hiding from bombs.

This novel by Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta, set between the 1960s till the late 70’s, is divided into six parts. It follows the story of Ijeoma, a girl growing up in war-torn Nigeria who must come to terms with her sexuality and the conflict this presents in society.

Okparanta’s storytelling is rich and colourful. The story is truly alive and blooming, short of a heartbeat. As she describes the tale of events – some haunting, other’s bountiful with raw beauty, her writing is other-worldly. Think late-night campfire stories with the characters’ voice and image vivid in your mind. Parts will break your heart, other’s will make you want to scream at the top of your lungs, and then, just when you think it’s end, she gives you everything you’ve wanted from the start.

Reading this novel is like the blooming of the brightest yellow flower through all its stages translated into words for us to read.

The book is available, amongst hundred others, at our Rainbow Library, open 3pm-6pm on Tuesdays and Thursday (excluding public holidays). Become a member here

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