I'm thrilled to be judging the first match-up in the 2016 alt-ToB (Alternative Tournament of Books.) This tournament stemmed from the Tournament of Books discussion group on GoodReads, which is not affiliated with The Morning News Tournament of Books which will happen in March. Please join us over at Goodreads to discuss all the match-ups, and follow along with the alt-ToB brackets.
When I saw I was tasked with comparing The Story of My Teeth and Under the Udala Trees, my first thought was to try to find the similarities between them. Both are the second work of fiction by a young woman whose first work of fiction received acclaim. (Luiselli’s first novel Faces in the Crowd was a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick, while Okparanta’s story collection Happiness, Like Water was a Young Lions Fiction nominee.) Both women were born in other countries but now live in the United States. Both women set this book in the country of their birth. After reading them, I’ll add that both are talented, adventurous writers who take very different approaches to writing.
I read The Story of My Teeth first. There was something bizarrely poignant about reading a novel about teeth while Hawthorne, my one-year-old, was getting his first molar. That one tooth turned our household upside down for a week, and The Story of My Teeth haunted my reading life most of that week. It’s a slim novel, but it consumed me and demanded I take time to stop and think and make sense of the narrative.
On the morning I started The Story of My Teeth, I was about twenty-five minutes early for a meeting. I pulled out my book and began reading. Perhaps partly because I was reading in a hotel lobby rife with distractions, more than once I said, “wait...what?” and re-read a paragraph. The Story of My Teeth is a book to start slowly. To say it is an unconventional narrative is a bizarrely conventional statement that doesn’t fit this slim novel. As I read for twenty minutes, I found myself wanting to put the book down before my colleagues arrived and asked me what I was reading. The Story of My Teeth is not a book I wanted to talk about with anyone but the most adventurous readers of literary fiction. It is not a book I’ll ever recommend to a casual reader. The opening line alerts the reader this book is something different and hard to quantify: “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man.” There is so much at play in this novel, and this sentence manages to capture much of it.
After that sentence, I read with the presumption that our narrator was unreliable. I’m drawn to unreliable narrators, yet I found his storytelling uneven. The auction descriptions quickly grew dull. Luiselli is being intentionally clever, I thought, but after a few, they didn’t add anything new to the story and killed its momentum. After the auction, things got convoluted and weird to the point I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. As a reader, it’s hard for me to admit that, yet what Luiselli does next is so brilliant and unexpected, I’m not ashamed to do so.
My favorite part of the book was the part not written from the narrator’s point of view. The shift in language was initially jarring, which made me realize how engaged I was in the novel, even as I didn’t think I was. The pictures and artifacts elevate the novel to a fascinating, multi-layered piece of art. I was pleasantly surprised to have some of the ambiguity removed, and this section forced me to reevaluate my earlier thoughts. It’s a rare experience for a novel to completely change course that way, and I enjoyed the surprise immensely.
Was this book a worthwhile reading experience? Yes. Did I enjoy reading it? Not particularly. Did its risks excite me for what else Luiselli will do in her career? Absolutely.
The Story of My Teeth captured my attention in the first sentence; Under the Udala Trees didn’t really make me sit up and pay attention until Part Two. Yet I began highlighting passages on the second page: “This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.” Okparanta’s writing is fluid and wise, and she drops hints from the beginning that she is writing this story from the future. I am drawn to stories told in this way, as they can offer both the immersive storytelling experience as well as the wisdom time brings. Particularly in coming of age stories, the reader can both remember the emotional weight of youth while sharing the experience of looking at those events with the perspective of hindsight.
Part One sets the stage, and it makes sense it comes first. It is the story’s beginning, and it helps acclimate the reader to Nigeria and the shift into war. When the action jumps to Part 2, I realized Okparanta is a bold storyteller telling a bold story. She has a clear point of view. It’s one that fits beautifully into Ijeoma’s story, but one whose impact can be far greater. Here, Ijeoma and her mother read the Bible and discuss each passage relevant to homosexuality. The import of these discussions exists on many layers. They serve to move the story forward and provide a key moment of conflict for the main character, but they also serve a larger role of allowing Okparanta a forum to address homophobia. As a contemporary American reader, I was struck by the connection to today’s world. We’re having the same conversations today, in many parts of the world, as Igeoma has in 1970’s Nigeria. This symmetry’s poignance will linger for a long time.
Part Three shifts back to the time between Parts One and Two. It’s an interesting storytelling decision, and it helps elevate this novel to much more than a chronological coming of age novel. Okparanta is taking risks to tell the story in this order. I found the events in Part Three to be somewhat slow, but there continue to be moments of beauty. When the time shifts again in Part Four, to high school, where Ijeoma and Amina are at the same boarding school, the novel really takes off. Okparanta’s storytelling becomes more aggressive as the stakes are raised for Ijeoma. She covers more time as Ijeoma’s story stretches into an adulthood that is both expected and unexpected. In the novel’s final pages, we discover Ijeoma is telling the story from 2014, which helps give this novel its impressive scope. The second half of Under the Udala Trees left me breathless. It begins as a coming of age lesbian love story set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, but this novel stretches into so much more. The scope of the novel is immense: social justice, coming of age, life, love, motherhood, sexism, homophobia, and religious fervor. It is perhaps a less obvious ambition than in The Story of My Teeth, but it is more successful and ultimately more satisfying.
My verdict was obvious to me as soon as I finished reading, but it took me a few days to articulate my reasons. The Story of My Teeth is most concerned with trying to do something new, while Under the Udala Trees is most concerned with trying to say something. Both are worthy causes in literature. For me, the most enjoyable reading experiences are brilliant and ambitious, but they are also enjoyable. The Story of My Teeth has flashes of brilliance and an abundance of ambition, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to read. Under the Udala Trees manages that reading trifecta, and it not only gets the win, it is one of my favorite reads of 2015.
Winner: Under the Udala Trees