I’ve put off this review far too long, and though I could just skip it, I don’t want to punk out when the reviewing gets tough. I really wanted to like Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, as it came highly recommended and was written by an African lesbian, a voice I haven’t heard before, but this book really didn’t work for me. That said, I didn’t dislike it enough to hate-review it, so I’m stuck in a kind of mushy middle of blah.
Ijeoma is a young Igbo girl growing up in a small town in Biafra on the brink of devastation during the Nigerian civil war. When her mother sends her away to live with family friends in what should be a safer area, Ijeoma befriends an orphaned Hausa girl named Amina, who is allowed to stay as long as she helps Ijeoma with the household duties. The two girls share a small hovel behind the main house, spending all their time together and eventually developing feelings for each other that go beyond friendship. When they are discovered exploring their forbidden attractions, Ijeoma’s mother swiftly arrives to take her away and teach her to live a proper life.
This read was an exercise in frustration. I really liked the first section with its YA feeling as Ijeoma explored her first experiences with romance and sexuality, and I even didn’t mind the very Afterschool-Special section when Ijeoma’s mother tried to use the Bible to convince her of the wrongness of her attraction to women. There were also some rather enlightening if disheartening sections about the past and present plight of LGBT people in Nigeria, which really held my attention. But then Ijeoma married a childhood friend to appease her mother, and the story abruptly switched to one of disaffected marriage, complete with obligatory baby to tie Ijeoma to her husband. This was when the very thin characterizations became a problem, especially in Ijeoma’s husband, as the words and actions felt arbitrary, meant to hit certain plot points rather than to reflect the characters performing them.
As the book approached the end, it took another sharp turn, suddenly introducing folk stories and describing Ijeoma’s dreams in detail, which . . . ugh. I really hate dreams in fiction. Other people’s dreams are b o r i n g, and real dreams simply don’t work the way most fiction writers use them. The narrative became disconnected from any meaningful action just as the book should have been coming to a climax, and instead it just fizzled out. It felt strange that the folk stories and dreams seemed to come out of nowhere instead of having been woven throughout to unify the entire work.
I can’t deny Chinelo Okparanta’s voice is incredibly important, given the continuing dangers to LGBT people in countries like Nigeria, and there was a lot to like in this book. But that’s also what made this read so frustrating, because as a whole, it never came together, and the ending was a real drag.