I had heard so much of the success of Okparanta’s ‘Under the Udala Trees’ in America, where it was published last year, that I decided to break my no-book-buying ambition for 2016. To put this in context, the only other new novel I have bought this year is Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’ (reviewed here). My reasons for buying ‘Under the Udala Trees’ were that 1) there was no way I was patient enough to wait for it to appear and then become available at my library and 2) I had a sneaky suspicion that this might turn out to be one of those modern classics (like last year’s ‘The Fisherman,’ reviewed here) that I needed to own so that I could lend it out to all and sundry, ensuring that everyone became part of the literary moment.
If the definition of tragedy is a story that starts with things going well and ends in chaos, while comedy begins with conflict and concludes with happy resolution then there may be some cause for hope with the start of Okparanta’s novel. In other words, the beginning of the story is disturbing and traumatic. It’s the Nigerian civil war and the ‘normal cycle of things‘ is disrupted, first by euphoric hope and then by terrified despair. The young Ijeoma has to leave her gated compound, and live apart from her family. It may be tempting to ascribe what happens later to this childhood trauma (a dead father, an emotionally and physically absent mother), but Okparanta shows that such individualistic arguments can’t work. Ijeoma’s story is not unique, and everyone of her generation will grow up scarred by war. The question is, will the younger generation be able to create a better Nigeria from the period of destruction.
Cast adrift from her mother and her class, ‘adopted’ as a housegirl by intellectual family friends, Ijeoma does her best to be the model servant in the hope that her mother will at some point reclaim her. Her life is given new meaning through her friendship with another outsider, Amina, who will join her in her work and life at the Grammar school teacher’s home. Okparanta does an excellent job of showing Western readers quite how many taboos are being broken through this relationship. Those who’ve read the blurb will be prepared for a burgeoning romance, but maybe not for ethnic and religious boundaries. Amina is Hausa, Ijeoma is Igbo; that they can create joy and love despite their religious and political differences should be a force for hope in the novel, but the setting is Nigeria where, even today, same-sex relationships are illegal, often punished by death. The innocence and beauty of the relationship cannot survive the reality of its context.
The novel is made up of six sections plus an epilogue, taking us up to January 2014. Despite the historical start, there is no way of confining this book, or its important message of tolerance and humanity, to the past. No matter how tough the intervening chapters, you really must read it to the end to see how Okparanta leaves her troubled, traumatised and utterly believable characters. One of the best coming of age stories I have read in recent years, I am so pleased I rushed to buy this book. There’s no way to predict how securely it will find its place in the future as a modern classic, but it is definitely an important book for today.