Love is a Quiet Power | A Review of Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

All the things the boy will do, I promise to do better. In all the ways he can love you, I promise to love you better.

Ijeoma is eleven years old when the Nigerian Civil War breaks out. Eleven, when her father dies in the subsequent bombings that ravage her Igbo village. Eleven, when her mother sends her away to live with a grammar school teacher and his barren wife—whether for Ijeoma’s safety or out of the grief her mother has yet to cope with, Ijeoma herself cannot say. And she is eleven, living at the grammar school teacher’s, cleaning up and tending his home, when Ijeoma first finds love in the young Hausa girl that comes to live with them.

Under the Udala Trees is a subtle, slow burn that pays off emotionally in every conceivable way. From the onset of the Nigerian Civil War to Under the Udala Trees’ quiet and satisfying ending, we are dropped into and left to ruminate on Ijeoma’s world where the expectations of an only child—a girl child, at that—are monumental and the future she sees for herself as an independent woman freely living with her female lover, is inherently antithetical to how those around her would see her: dutiful student, dutiful daughter, dutiful Christian, dutifully working her way to being an equally dutiful wife. The constant push and pull of these warring ideas creates a beautifully, sometimes painfully, layered experience.

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