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.

Inspired by Nigeria s folktales and its war, Under the Udala Trees shows through one woman’s lifetime how the struggles and divisions of a nation are inscribed into the souls of its citizens. In prose that is elegant and spare, with insights heart-breaking and electrifying, it offers a story shot through with hope that points to a future when a woman might just be able to become fully herself, shaping her life around truth and love.

Nigerian Biafran War

The opens shortly after the Nigerian Biafran war begins and we see the devastation that characterises wars as it were. Life in Eastern Nigeria during this period is vividly portrayed by Chinelo in her novel, Under the Udala Trees. More specifically the impact of the war on Ijeoma’s life story.

The head of the family, Uzo, Ijeoma’s father is shown to be a rock to Ijeoma and her mother.

At the warning of an air raid, he refused to follow his daughter and wife to safety in their bunker. After the raid, Uzo is found lying in his own pool of blood. Grief, the common bride of war visits the family afterwards and Ijeoma’s mother processes this differently.

Ijeoma first assumes this is in denial but there is a strong sense of bitterness that takes years before she can call his name without a hint of bitterness.

The war first takes away Ijeoma’s father but puts her on the path that would also cross with Amina’s after her mother sends her off to the Ejiofor’s in Nnewi and there a story of forbidden love was to begin.

Same Sex Love

This would be the second book in a row I would be reviewing that deals with same sex love.

Let’s be real here. Writing LGBT literature is really hard to do in a country where the subject is a taboo. Even to hold a pacifist’s standpoint is considered a taboo and in the worst scenario punishable by death.

The first person to catch Ijeoma and Amina is Mr. Ejiofor who walked in on them. There are several instances in the book where Chinelo shows the ridiculous reactions to this same sex love: first the deliverance prayers by and for Ijeoma; and second, Amina’s deference during their secondary school years and her concession to marriage to a man before their relocation to the north. The third time round, there was the reported cases of witch-hunting across Ojoto. Ndidi and Ijeoma narrowly escape a witch hunt one night while they were secretly meeting at a church.

To Chinelo’s merit, the subject of the same sex love between Ijeoma and Amina (and later Ndidi) is treated delicately. Delicacy as not to take the subject lightly but care to ensure that the story is told honestly and respectfully. There is here a semblance of a poet’s passion that is merciless but dignified, holding a mirror up to our faces.

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Challenging the Patriarchal

The beauty of Chinelo’s writing is how it delivers believable characters and storylines. I found myself hoping Chibundu, Ijeoma’s husband, would be the man we need him to be. For the first part of his marriage to Ijeoma, he was all he needed to be before they had their first child but when it turned out to be a girl child, his attitude changed.

Looking up at me, he said, “It was a mistake on my part not to share this with the girl. What was I thinking? How could I have been so foolish? It would probably have brought us the good luck we wanted if only I had shared it with her. After all, she would have been his sister, and that’s what siblings are supposed to do. They are supposed to share.”

Even after he unravelled Ijeoma’s secret, he was willing to carry on with a loveless marriage if only he was sure Ijeoma would bear him a son.

I enjoyed this book for Chinelo’s masterful use of language. The references to Igbo folk tales was a joy as well, some of them I had been told myself. The characters were believable and I wasn’t put off by the lack of resolution of some relationships – this is fine by me. It’s realistic this way. Not all relationships are resolved or attain closure – still the story ties neatly at the end. In all, Under the Udala Trees is a beautifully told love story.

Have you read this yet? Let me know what you think in the comment section.

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