'Under the Udala Trees' examines the potential for cruelty in ordinary life

Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta's first novel starts quietly. Don't be deceived.

Under the Udala Trees Hardcover by Chinelo Okparanta Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 336 pp.

One of the rising stars of current African fiction, Chinelo Okparanta was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Under the Udala Trees, which follows her short-story collection "Happiness, Like Water," is her first novel.

For a book that arrives bedecked with glowing blurbs, "Under the Udala Trees" is a deceptively quiet tale, one that gradually undermines the reader’s expectations. The voice of the book belongs to a young girl named Ijeoma, telling her own story as if it were a fairy tale. She describes the yellow house where she lives, surrounded by green hedges “dotted heavily in pink by tiny, star-like ixora flowers.” Oranges, guavas, and mangos hang from the trees. Hers is a timeless existence, “the rainy season followed by the dry season, and the harmattan folding itself within the dry.”

The first couple of pages conjure up an inviting but somewhat cliché version of traditional rural life as a gentle paradise. When the year 1967 is first mentioned, it feels like an intrusion. Ijeoma’s village, we learn, is in the fragile state of Biafra, and war is on the way. For a while, the book feels as if it might become a Young Adult version of a novel like "Half of a Yellow Sun."

Ijeoma clearly has a gift for description, saying, “I could not help but take in the smell of his Morgan’s hair pomade, the one in the yellow and red tin-capped container, which always reminded me of medicine.” Yet when horrors appear, she describes them with offputting flatness: “Corpses flanked the roads. Decapitated bodies. Bodies with missing limbs.” The author’s prose style is so clean and straightforward it is easy at first to mistake its clarity for shallowness. That would be a mistake. 

Shaken by her husband’s death in a bombing raid, Ijeoma’s mother sends her away from the war. She will stay with friends of the family, a grammar school teacher and his wife. The couple greet her stiffly, house her in a shack in their backyard, and put her to work as their housegirl. Ijeoma’s mother does not visit for a year and a half.

Despite first appearances, this is neither a war story nor a Cinderella story. If anything, it is more like Romeo and Juliet. Alone and abandoned, growing into adolescence, the young servant girl finds love, but not from a fairy-tale princess. She finds it from among her people’s enemies.

Returning home from the market, she is followed by a girl in a tattered green pinafore and hair in long clumps. Ijeoma takes her home to be fed. The teacher and his wife are far from welcoming (“She looks like a street urchin, a homeless little imp,” the teacher says), but they grudgingly let the girl stay when it appears she has no family to return to. By the time they learn that her name is Amina and that she is a Muslim and a Hausa – her people among the most hostile opponents of Biafra – it is too late to put her back on the street.

The novel finds its heart in the bond between Ijeoma and Amina, not in the war or in Ijeoma’s exile from home. The friendship that grows between the two outcast girls develops into a deeper intimacy, and sets their lives on a truer but more dangerous course. To live as a woman who loves other women (the word lesbian appears only once, late in the book) is to risk physical and emotional abuse, or even death.

"Under the Udala Trees" has moments of outright horror, as when a clandestine lesbian club is raided and one of its women murdered by a mob. But the unsettling truth it conveys is that most unnecessary suffering doesn’t come from the extremists. It comes from ordinary people who are just a bit narrower and a bit more unfeeling than they need to be.

The schoolteacher and his wife have their reasons for their shabby treatment of the two girls. Ijeoma’s mother has her reasons for abandoning her daughter, and for dragging her home and assaulting her with Bible verses when she finds out about Amina. Ijeoma’s husband, when she eventually marries, has his reasons for resenting his wife, spying on her, and raping her repeatedly. (Ijeoma never calls it that, underlining the horror of her situation.) Everyone has reasons, though most are a shabby disguise for selfishness.

Africa has produced a number of powerful feminist novels, from authors like Ama Ata Aidoo, Ken Bugul, and Nawal El Saadawi. Unlike some of them, "Under the Udala Trees" never reads like a position paper or a protest speech. As Ijeoma grows into womanhood, she suffers or witnesses many kinds of intolerance: sexism, ethnic hatred, homophobia, religious bigotry. There is even a glimpse of how children “cursed” with harelips or other birth defects are treated. Yet none of these experiences seems contrived. Each develops organically out of her life experience, making them more powerful both as character development and social commentary.

"Under the Udala Trees" offers few verbal pyrotechnics, but the emotional honesty that drives it is devastating. 

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