‘Under the Udala Trees’ Chinelo Okparanta – #20 Books of Summer

I might only be two books into my #20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge (hosted by Cathy at 746 Books), but I’m currently playing catch up on a week’s holiday in Italy and Switzerland.

My first two books came courtesy of Haverfordwest library. I picked out Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees because of the rave reviews I’ve read. I first encountered it on Naomi’s excellent blog The Writes of Women, and it’s been on my wish list ever since.

The novel begins in 1968 against a backdrop of the Nigerian civil war. Ijeoma’s world is torn apart when her father is killed. Unable to cope with her grief, Ijeoma’s mother sends her away, where she has to earn her keep doing chores, and sleep in an outhouse. Her loneliness is unbearable until she meets and befriends Amina, another girl whose childhood has been blighted by the ravages of war. As their relationship blossoms it becomes clear that their love for each other conflicts with the expectations of how women’s lives should unfold, placed upon them by family, society and the church.

Marriage has a shape. Its shape is that of a bicycle. Doesn’t matter the size or colour of the bicycle. All that matters is that the bicycle is complete, that the bicycle has two wheels.

‘The man is one wheel,’ she continued, ‘the woman the other.  One wheel must come before the other, and the other wheel has no choice but to follow. What is certain, though, is that neither wheel is able to function fully without the other. And what use is it to exist in the world as a partially functioning human being?


In this heart-breaking tale, Okparanta explores the limited choices and risks faced by these young women, forced to meet the expectations imposed upon them by an unforgiving patriarchy, in which choosing freedom is no choice at all, as it could cost them their lives. I thought Under the Udala Trees was powerful in its simplicity. The prose is beautifully understated, allowing the message to ring out loud and clear. I would like to quote from what was one of the most poignant passages for me.

Sometimes I sit with my Bible in my hands, and I think to myself that God is nothing but an artist, and the world is His canvas. And I reason that if the Old and New Testaments are any indication, then change is in fact a major part of His aesthetic, a major part of His vision for the world. The Bible itself is an endorsement of change. Even biblical covenants change: In the New Testament, no longer the need for animal sacrifices. Change. No longer the covenant of law, but rather the covenant of grace. Change. A focus on all mankind rather than a focus on the Jews. Change. So many other changes, if a person were the list-making type.                                                       Many days I reason to myself that change is the point of it all. And that everything we do should be a reflection of that vision of change.                                           Maybe the rules of the Bible will always be in flux. Maybe God is still speaking and will continue to do so for always. Maybe He is still creating new covenants, only we were too deaf, too headstrong, too set in old ways to hear.

I can think of more than a handful of people that could do with reading that!

I was hoping to write two mini-reviews in this blog-post but I think this book deserves a post to itself. I’d highly recommend Under the Udala Trees and I ca’t wait to read what Chinelo Okparanta writes next.

udala trees portrait