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Under the Udala Trees Paperback – September 20, 2016
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A unique and devastatingly hopeful story about the paradox of love: even in the midst of war, and ina world dominated by violence and prejudice, still, love transcends." Mia Couto
Ijeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they, star-crossed, fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls.
When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself. But there is a cost to living inside a lie.
Inspired by Nigeria s folktales and its war, Under the Udala Trees shows through one woman s lifetime how the struggles and divisions of a nation are inscribed into the souls of its citizens. In prose that is elegant and spare, with insights heartbreaking and electrifying, it offers a story shot through with hope that points to a future when a woman might just be able to become fully herself, shaping her life around truth and love.
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“Happiness was what she called it. But I knew that happiness was a word like madness, like sickness, like confusion, like loss, like death. Even like beautiful or pure or angelic or God. Happiness was a word that represented some deeper, unexplainable, heavy idea, the kind of idea that goes back and forth between two different worlds.”
Okparanta is one of those rare writers who can truly harness the power of simplicity to let the potency of the narrative shine through. Modest, unhurried language and a plot that meanders without dramatic twists and turns leave readers of Under the Udala Trees in a rare and fortunate place—one in which there is nothing left to consider but the bare truths of having a self that is forbidden.
The simplicity of the prose makes it impossible to hide from the power and strength of the narrative, and although the plot is not necessarily unexpected, I found myself carried away in the treacherous and secretive lives of the Nigerian lesbian community. The book features wonderfully relatable female leads and reveals the power that a community can hold over those within it. We are shown how shame is engendered as thoroughly as a sense of belonging, and how this tension creates immense uncertainty for women (and men) who don’t quite fit the mold.
Despite the masterful austere essence of the prose, sometimes I found myself wishing that Okparanta would go deeper. The simplicity made sense when the story was being told from the point of view of a child, but as Ijeoma aged the narrative style did not. For such an incredibly emotional and complex issue, it was disappointing to sense that there was so much being held back from the story. While I appreciate authors who allow the reader to complicate and intuit the deeper meaning of things, I’m not confident that this was Okparanta’s intent, and therefore find myself wishing that she had tackled these issues with a bit more grit.
Given the fact that in 2014 all homosexual relationships became illegal in Nigeria, subject to at least 14 years in prison, I think this is an important book to read, and one that probably needed to be told years or decades ago. It’s easy to read but not easy to stomach—elements which I think make it a good narrative to make a wide range of people confront an issue they may know nothing about.
Elise Hadden, Under the Heather Books (www.undertheheatherbooks.com)
As the novel develops, we are swept into a world of myth and legend, a world of religion, where love is narrowly defined and verses used to punish and thwart, not inspire or reward, a world of rapid change, both personal and nation-wide. Ijeoma must learn to protect her love, hide it, and understand it without guidance from elders or scripture. Not only is this a war story and a love story, it is a coming of age story, the strands of which are woven tightly and the colors blended to form complex images of the deepest human complexity.
From student to store clerk to running wild to marriage and finally to setting off on her own dangerous but loving path, Ijeoma becomes a brave woman, as free as she can be, and a loving soul. The novel does all this with a realistic style and details tinged with the magic of folk tales.
The novel reminds me of Richard Wright’s masterful autobiography, Black Boy, insightful in society’s violent injustices, brave in its truth and love of life, and daring in its revelations.
Her exploration of public, familial, and self acceptance in a society that is not accepting is poignant and breathtaking. The plot never feels forced and her characters make decisions that are very true to human nature and behavior. Okparanta does not idealize or gloss over painful situations. Instead, she acknowledges the pain of suffering and indecision without wallowing in it. If you are looking for a thought-provoking, well written story I would highly recommend purchasing a copy of Under the Udala Trees.