In his essay, “Growing Up During the Occupation,” Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe describes his war-addled childhood as watching the adults sit around and cry in front of the radio as the children sat “bathed in strong summer sunlight.” Ijeoma, the narrator of Chinelo Okparanta’s tender debut novel, “Under the Udala Trees,” assumes a similar position. At school, when the social studies teacher tries to explain what a coup is, Ijeoma says, “in my tired, end-of-school-day child’s mind, I heard instead: coop.”
The first part of the novel takes place from 1967 to 1970, during the Nigerian Civil War, in which the largely Christian Igbo people failed to secede from the rest of the Nigeria. Aside from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” it’s an event that hasn’t been written about in much fiction. But whereas Adichie drew an account of the aristocracy, Okparanta accounts the story of Ijeoma, a lower-class girl struggling to reconcile her sexual identity to her faith and her country’s unforgiving precepts.
Ijeoma is 11 when her father dies in an air raid. Her mother, Adaora, sends her off to live with a grammar schoolteacher. She meets an orphaned girl named Amina. Slowly, shyly, their friendship blossoms to passion. Adaora attempts to re-appropriate Ijeoma’s sinful ways with an exorcism; a miracle worker comes to Ijeoma’s school and tries to heal her heart.
Adaora, vividly portrayed, continually bends under the stress of violent memories, the circumscribing famine and the pressure to provide. Her inherited convictions represent the postwar Nigerian culture on a micro level, tense and fraught with a sense of impending doom. Death is around the corner, and you must please God, family, minister, country.
Ijeoma is good-hearted and sensitive, and as she grows older, helping in her mother’s shop and engaging in a secret affair with a schoolteacher, Ndidi, she becomes increasingly claustrophobic. As she yearns to be free of conservative strictures and embrace God, she wavers, describing the time as “the beginning of my witch-hunt against myself.” These are some of the most compelling and painful parts of the novel, rich in complexity, compassionate in the treatment of political violence and flagrant oppression.
Okparanta’s prose feels natural, effortless. She renders the Nigerian landscape in lyrical bursts — “where rocks rose like hills and where the plantain trees grew high” — and, as in her short stories, the rhythms slide seamlessly into intimate, conversational tones, equal parts folk tale and confessional. Throughout the book, many characters pound yams at the kitchen counter, echoing the constantly beating drums in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” The hearts of the people beat in unison, the symbol seems to say — as do the hearts of literary forefathers and descendants.
Josh Cook’s fiction and reviews have appeared in the Iowa Review, Thirty-Two Magazine, the Millions and elsewhere.