Under the Udala Trees

Written by Chinelo Okparanta
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

This novel is a gorgeously written homage to love set against the background of Nigeria during a time of civil unrest in the late 1960s.

Ijeoma is on the cusp of becoming a teenager when her father dies in a bombing. With no means to support her daughter, Ijeoma’s mother reluctantly sends her away to be a housegirl at an old friend’s house, while she moves away to try to get settled.

While staying in a shack on the friend’s property, Ijeoma meets a homeless girl, Amina, whose family was lost in the war. What starts out as innocent friendship between two girls blossoms into something more. When the girls are discovered, Ijeoma’s mother quickly returns for her daughter, trying to “heal” her via intense prayers. But as she grows older, she realizes that she is not meant for marriage to a man and embarks on another romantic relationship with a woman, one that she is more careful to keep hidden. Despite her suspicions, Ijeoma’s mother turns a blind eye to her daughter’s propensities, forcing a traditional marriage upon her. As Ijeoma begins a life that is contrary to her heart, she is confronted with a decision that will forever affect her life and the life of those she loves.

Incorporating Nigerian folktales, the author weaves a lush coming-of-age tale of forbidden love but also of strength and resilience. The book is narrated by a grown Ijeoma, ending in the year 2014, the year Nigeria officially outlawed same-sex relationships, imposing very harsh criminal penalties. The vivid imagery of the bloody civil war and the stark Nigerian post-war landscape complements the sumptuous prose. This book has universal appeal.