This story is set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war and tells the life story of Ijeoma from girlhood to womanhood. Born as the only child of an upper middle class family, Ijeoma’s life is suddenly torn apart by a air raid bomb which destroys her home and kills her father. Following this tragic event, her mother sends her away to live with a family friend, a grammar-school teacher and his wife, for safety. During this time, Ijeoma meets another child displaced by the war and she falls in love, the catch? They are from different tribes, different religions, and they are both girls.
The story unravels as Ijeoma, grows and learns to understand herself, her country, and the implications of expressing her love and true feelings in a deeply religious and conservative society. This is a gorgeous, thought provoking story that will tug at your heartstrings and leave you with a lot to thinking long after you finish the book.
Okparanta manages to evoke very complex feelings with very bare language. Description in general, of the setting, the people and even Ijeoma’s internal narrative and emotions is often minimal, leaving the reader to “color in the picture” themselves, so to speak.
This works both ways, on some occasions it serves to highlight the intensity of the circumstances on the page, other times it leaves you feeling with a feeling of detachment as you get relatively muted reactions from Ijeoma to these events.
Although it is mostly marketed as an LGBTQ book and that is a significant and overarching theme in the book, there are many other intertwining topics woven into the narrative pertaining to identity, religion, acceptance, motherhood, marriage, gender roles and violence. For example, a huge defining part of the story is Ijeoma’s relationship to her mother which is complicated and abusive in many ways and often times make you want to hurl the books across the room.
Ultimately, this is a story of a woman coming to terms with herself, about what you do and do not compromise when societal rules, family, safety dictate how one must behave. It also deals with the effects and reactions to trauma notable through Ijeoma’s muted response to many of her hardships, often responding with apathy or acquiescence to horrific treatment and demands by her mother, the grammar-teacher, and her husband, until at last she has the strength to put her own desires before those of others.
The narrative of the story is mainly chronological and divided into short chapters which often included teasers such as “I did not know at the time that this would be the last time I would see her” type lines that helped build the tension but often were a little exasperating since they often served as little spoilers to major story plot points and then you would have to read on to find out how she got there.
This was a solid 4 star book for me. It was poignant, thought provoking, and made you feel the feels. This is a great book club pick and one that I am hopeful will expand readers empathy and curiosity about the very real dangers and prejudices faced by women and LGBTQ persons around the world. It made me pause and ponder upon identity and relationship and, mother-daughter bonds. I would highly recommend this book. The only thing that kept me from giving it 5 stars was the language, which at times felt too simple and actually detracted and distanced me from the full-impact of the events happening. Overall a beautiful book, I can wait to see what Okparanta has in store.
You can find the book here.
You can find the book here.