Okparanta, Chinelo. 2015. Under the Udala Trees. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
With lyrical prose richly adorned with Igbo proverbs and folklore motifs, Okparanta weaves a poignant coming of age story of a Nigerian girl growing up in a war zone. Set in pre-independence Nigeria, Under the Udala Trees follows 11 year old Ijeoma as she grows up amidst violence, strict cultural expectations, and religious intolerance.
In 1968, after her father is killed in a bombing, Ijeoma is sent away to be a housemaid for her own safety and to enable her mother to rebuild her life. She misses her mother desperately and doesn’t understand why she was sent away, but one day a Hausa girl joins the household and Ijeoma discovers love.
The book is separated into sections corresponding with Ijeoma’s lifespan. Each section moves at an unhurried pace, providing deep focus into life events and important interactions. Characters are multidimensional, with thick description of gesture, tone, and expression. Dialog is both culturally specific and relatable; patois and idioms may require some careful reading for non-Igbo readers, but the language is understandable and enhances the tone and overall impact of the novel.
Under the Udala Trees is gorgeous, elegant, and heartbreaking. I expect it to be lauded in the coming award cycle. I highly recommend this novel for public and academic libraries as well as college and high school humanities classes.
Content note: Descriptions of homophobic violence and war.