If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.
When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effect of her spells on you.
No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes.
Nigeria, 1968, a year into the Biafran War. One Sunday afternoon, Ijeoma’s father refuses to go to the bunker behind the house. When it ends, Ijeoma and her mother find him ‘face-down on the black-and-white-tiled floor of the dining room…His hands and legs were tangled strangely around his body, dying branches twisted around a dying trunk’.
His death leaves Ijeoma’s mother grief-stricken. Depressed and unable to manage the day-to-day running of a household, eleven-year-old Ijeoma takes over. Soon after, her mother decides to move. As she goes to discover the condition of her parents’ house in Aba, she sends Ijeoma to live with a former friend of Ijeoma’s father: the grammar school teacher and his wife.
In 1970, while Ijeoma’s working as a housegirl for the grammar school teacher and his wife, living in a one-room structure behind their home, she meets Amina.
In the near darkness, our hands moved across our bodies. We took in with our fingers the curves of our flesh, the grooves. Our hands, rather than our voices, seemed to do the speaking. Our breaths mingled with the night sounds. Eventually our lips met. This was the beginning, our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh.
When the grammar school teacher walks in on them he summons Ijeoma’s mother who takes her to Aba and doesn’t speak to her for a week. After the week’s passed, she begins what she refers to as ‘cleansing your soul’; schooling Ijeoma in the Bible, forcing meanings from stories to support her view that relationships should be heterosexual and produce children.
By the end of all those lessons, all that praying, if anyone had asked how I felt, I would have told them that I was exhausted. Not angry, not confused, not even penitent. Just exhausted.
The novel follows Ijeoma from the age of eleven until her early twenties as society, her upbringing and her religion leave her struggling to come to terms with her sexuality.
The characters and the plot are utterly convincing. This is partly to do with the society of the novel, which forces Ijeoma and others to hide part of their personality through means deemed acceptable but are actually barbaric. Where society’s rules are transgressed, there’s a high price to pay: there’s a scene where a group of women Ijeoma meets as a young woman pay a price for their apparent deception which will haunt me for a long time.
Okparanta’s language choices are also impressive, moving between poetic and prosaic, depending on the requirements of the story. Her mother’s grief leaves her so ‘even the best-tasting food had the same appeal as a leaf of paper or a palmful of sand’; a man pushing a bicycle with a coffin on the back ‘too small to fit the body inside, so that the feet of the deceased – perhaps his child or other family member – stuck out from the bottom end of the wooden box’; her mother wanting to shed things in her grief:
To shed, and shed, and shed. Like an animal casting off old hair or skin. A lizard. A snake. A cat or a dog. Even chickens molt.
To shed us all like a bad habit. Or maybe, simply, the way one casts off a set of dirty, thorn-infested clothes.
It’s almost impossible to believe that Under the Udala Trees is a debut novel. It’s beautifully crafted, gripping and heart-breaking with moments of brightness piercing the dark, hostile environment of Christian, patriarchal, heterosexual Nigeria. I’ll be astonished if this doesn’t make the shortlist of every prize it’s eligible for. Chinelo Okparanta is a major new voice in fiction.
Thanks to Granta for the review copy.