In 1968, during the second year of the war between Biafra and Nigeria, 11-year-old Ijeoma is sent away from her home in Ojoto for safety by her mother, Adaora.
Ijeoma’s father, Uzo, is dead, destroyed in a bombing raid that nearly decimated their village, and her mother is quickly unraveling, unable to cope with the ongoing war and famine. But Adaora’s love for her daughter is limitless; when Ijeoma was born early, for example, Adaora gave herself headaches learning about nutrition to make sure her baby grew healthy. Okparanta is masterful at articulating the pressures living through endless violence has on each of her characters' psyches; Adaora crumbles under the harshness of the ongoing war. Her plan is to go to her parents’ house in Aba and see if things are better there while Ijeoma stays with friends in Nnewi; she'll send for the girl to join her when it's safe. But Ijeoma feels this separation is prompted less by necessity than by the fact that Adaora now finds her daughter an impossible burden. Alone in Nnewi, Ijeoma falls in love with another displaced girl, Amina. But when their relationship is discovered, Ijeoma is sent back to her mother, who is determined to teach Ijeoma that two girls can't be romantically involved. In the years following, Ijeoma must reconcile her feelings toward women with the pressure to marry a man and be accepted in a country that makes being gay punishable by death. In language both sparse and lyrical, Okparanta manages to articulate a child's wide-eyed understanding of the breakdown of the world around her. We see, too, a detailed rebuilding of that world along with Ijeoma's maturity into womanhood. Here is writing rich in the beautiful intimacies of people who love each other—and wise about the importance of holding onto those precious connections in a world that is, more often than not, dangerous and cold.
Written with courage and compassion, this debut novel by Okparanta (Happiness, Like Water, 2013) stunningly captures a young girl’s coming of age against the backdrop of a nation at war.