Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.

When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effect of her spells on you.

No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes.

Nigeria, 1968, a year into the Biafran War. One Sunday afternoon, Ijeoma’s father refuses to go to the bunker behind the house. When it ends, Ijeoma and her mother find him ‘face-down on the black-and-white-tiled floor of the dining room…His hands and legs were tangled strangely around his body, dying branches twisted around a dying trunk’.

His death leaves Ijeoma’s mother grief-stricken. Depressed and unable to manage the day-to-day running of a household, eleven-year-old Ijeoma takes over. Soon after, her mother decides to move. As she goes to discover the condition of her parents’ house in Aba, she sends Ijeoma to live with a former friend of Ijeoma’s father: the grammar school teacher and his wife.

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In 1970, while Ijeoma’s working as a housegirl for the grammar school teacher and his wife, living in a one-room structure behind their home, she meets Amina.

In the near darkness, our hands moved across our bodies. We took in with our fingers the curves of our flesh, the grooves. Our hands, rather than our voices, seemed to do the speaking. Our breaths mingled with the night sounds. Eventually our lips met. This was the beginning, our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh.

When the grammar school teacher walks in on them he summons Ijeoma’s mother who takes her to Aba and doesn’t speak to her for a week. After the week’s passed, she begins what she refers to as ‘cleansing your soul’; schooling Ijeoma in the Bible, forcing meanings from stories to support her view that relationships should be heterosexual and produce children.

By the end of all those lessons, all that praying, if anyone had asked how I felt, I would have told them that I was exhausted. Not angry, not confused, not even penitent. Just exhausted.

The novel follows Ijeoma from the age of eleven until her early twenties as society, her upbringing and her religion leave her struggling to come to terms with her sexuality.

The characters and the plot are utterly convincing. This is partly to do with the society of the novel, which forces Ijeoma and others to hide part of their personality through means deemed acceptable but are actually barbaric. Where society’s rules are transgressed, there’s a high price to pay: there’s a scene where a group of women Ijeoma meets as a young woman pay a price for their apparent deception which will haunt me for a long time.

Okparanta’s language choices are also impressive, moving between poetic and prosaic, depending on the requirements of the story. Her mother’s grief leaves her so ‘even the best-tasting food had the same appeal as a leaf of paper or a palmful of sand’; a man pushing a bicycle with a coffin on the back ‘too small to fit the body inside, so that the feet of the deceased – perhaps his child or other family member – stuck out from the bottom end of the wooden box’; her mother wanting to shed things in her grief:

To shed, and shed, and shed. Like an animal casting off old hair or skin. A lizard. A snake. A cat or a dog. Even chickens molt.

To shed us all like a bad habit. Or maybe, simply, the way one casts off a set of dirty, thorn-infested clothes.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Under the Udala Trees is a debut novel. It’s beautifully crafted, gripping and heart-breaking with moments of brightness piercing the dark, hostile environment of Christian, patriarchal, heterosexual Nigeria. I’ll be astonished if this doesn’t make the shortlist of every prize it’s eligible for. Chinelo Okparanta is a major new voice in fiction.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

  1. Wonderful review! This books sounds incredibly powerful, especially for a debut. It’s going on the Wish list!

  2. Thanks for the review. SOunds like a powerful book. I have heard many praises about the book. I have been postponing buying it since it is set in Nigeria and most of the African lit I have read are set in Nigeria. Perhaps I will look this up in the latter part of the year.

  3. It’s so interesting that you liked this, because I started reading it a few weeks ago and found the narrative voice really clumsy. Possibly this is because I was comparing it (especially the opening sections) to Half of a Yellow Sun, but it felt as though Okparanta was trying to direct my responses in a way that wasn’t completely natural. I was really disappointed, because obviously it looks amazing and has been getting such good reviews! We’ll have to chat about it later 🙂

    • Interesting. I didn’t find it clumsy at all. Although having just read Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness there’s something in this about art and artifice and authenticity. We should definitely discuss it later.

      • Yes, agree–I worried that I was having trouble with it because I was expecting it to be something that it wasn’t and wasn’t trying to be (a bit like my problem with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.) Which worries me, but still doesn’t make me want to put my head down and tunnel through.

  4. Totally agree. Such a confident and clear new voice!
    One of the things I like best about it in retrospect is how it’s about a Nigerian character talking about Nigerian issues without pandering to the West or feeling like it has to include a white perspective on her experiences. I’ve been thinking about this issue after reading this passionate article about a Kenyan novel that western world publishers haven’t yet published: http://thenewinquiry.com/features/lets-tell-this-story/

    • YES! Patricia Dunker talked about this at a masterclass she did at my uni last year. It made me realise that’s one of the things at the heart of my problem with Kalid Husseini’s work.

  5. Wonderful review, this sounds like a gripping story. I love Nigerian authors, their style of writing;the fact that they naturally speak in metaphors; the plot is always meaningful and attached to their culture-I have yet to read a book from a Nigerian author that I didn’t enjoy. Just added this to my ‘to read’ list, I can’t wait to check it out!

  6. Second review I’ve read of this and it sounds really interesting. What I find a little puzzling is that it’s a ‘historical’ novel, i.e. it’s set before the author’s time. This seems strange given that it seems to be, in part, a critique of social norms. (Of course, I haven’t read it and could be wrong about all of this!)

    • Hmmm, well, it’s told in retrospect so you are given a taste in the epilogue of how things have panned out to the present day for the narrator and the next generation. It’s still illegal to be LGBT in Nigeria and I suspect that’s partly to do with the religion and how many people identify as Christian. So although technically this might be a historical novel, the attitudes are still very much current.

  7. Nice review! I’m always surprised that the Christianity pops up anywhere and everywhere on the globe, but it does. I should read more international books to remind myself of what’s going on “out there.”

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