Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book Review: "Under the Udala Trees" by Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala Trees Chinelo Okparanta
Published: September 22, 2015
ISBN: 9780544003446
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Netgalley

You might enjoy this book if you like: Novels set in Africa, LGBQT Novels, African History, Christianity in a non-religious work

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.

As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.

My Thoughts:
This was actually an up and down book for me.  There were a number of things about it that I loved, and other parts that I just didn't feel worked.  Added to the fact that this book was pretty strongly hyped by the time I got to t, and those lows seemed just that much lower to me.

This book does benefit from a strong narrator.  Ijeoma is an interesting young woman and I really felt that Okparanta wrote her in a way that I got to know her.  Her life is a series of struggles, to list them all would be to spoil the book, but  I will say that they deal with her life as a lesbian in a nation where homosexuality is not tolerated and where her religion, in this case Christianity, is used against her.  I found that part about religion especially upsetting, since I am a Christian and I could see how it was used as a weapon.  Yet, the fact that Ijeoma found her own truth in the faith and stayed true to it, made me admire the character even more.

At various times in the narrative, Ijeoma tells Nigerian folk tales and I found these fascinating.  They are treated almost as a religion alongside Christianity and Ijeoma draws strength and clarity from them as she does from her faith.  Okparanta weaves them in seamlessly, so I never felt like I was leaving the main story to read these tales.

I have to admit--and this may be more a fault of mine than of the book--that I wasn't always able to follow the history of this novel.  African History is not my foray, but Okparanta does spend some time explaining what is going on.  Still, I often found myself confused about who stood for what and who was fighting whom and who won what war.  Ultimately, that isn't especially critical to the central plot, but it did add a layer of confusion that I felt detracted from the narrative.

My main complaint with this book is that Okparanta doesn't really ever build up the emotional connection between Ijeoma and the two women she is involved with during the course of the book.  In the first chapter of the book, Okparanta emphasizes the importance of Amina, Ijeoma's first love who she meets when her mother sends her to live with friends during the war.  However, Amina is dropped as a character about halfway through the novel.  Even with that, I never felt that Ijeoma had a truly emotional connection to Amina--rather, Amina was the one who was there.  With Ndidi, Ijeom's 2nd romantic relationship, there is a bit more of a build up, but still not enough to convince me that there was a strong emotional attachment between the two characters.  This novel would have benefited by Okparanta spending more time on the relationships and really showing the deep emotional bond that Ijeoma had for these two women.

While this wasn't a perfect book for me, I would probably still recommend it to someone who was looking for something along these lines.  And, even with the problems with this book, I was impressed enough by Okparanta's writing that I would read more by her.

I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review.  I received no other compensation for this post.

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