Review: The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney

**** (NO SPOILERS)

WHY I CHOSE IT: I was so excited to order ‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’. It has great reviews so I really wanted to check out this debut by British Nigerian author, Nzelu Okechukwu.

THE PLOT: ‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’ is about a young mixed-race girl, the eponymous Nnenna, who grows up in Manchester with her white mother. She has never met her Nigerian father and her mum, Joanie, refuses to reveal anything about him. Consequently, Nnenna feels distant from her Igbo heritage and the novel depicts her attempts to reconnect with it. Although Nnenna and her mother are close, the novel shows their relationship break down as sixteen-year-old Nnenna explores Igbo culture and prepares to leave home for university. Meanwhile, Joanie’s story is told through flashbacks and it is revealed to the reader how she met Nnenna’s father.

MY RATING: This novel is very well-written so I’ve rated it four stars. The author displays a lot of skill with how he weaves in several ‘issue-led’ subplots, such as Nnenna losing her virginity to her boyfriend, and Joanie’s friend Jonathan coming to terms with his homosexuality. These subplots also allow the author to explore the point of view of many different characters, which is done deftly throughout the novel, often mid-chapter.

The novel also appealed to me because it is centered on the themes of race and identity. These came across in many different aspects of the novel, such as subplots about sexuality and religion, and tied the disparate points of view together. For example, Nnenna’s (white) best friend Stephanie briefly becomes the focus as a device to reflect on the intersection between race and class.

However, I was slightly disappointed with this novel because I struggled to connect with it. I expected to dive into Nnenna’s world and love her as a character. This should have been easy because I have a lot of similarities with her. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel Nnenna’s pain and, even though I’m a cry-baby, I didn’t shed a single tear!

Perhaps my lack of connection is due to the constant change in POV which, although stylistically accomplished, didn’t allow me to feel deeply with any of the characters? Or, perhaps I was disappointed because the novel feels like Joanie’s story about giving birth to and raising a mixed-race child? Therefore, maybe I felt short changed because I expected a book about a mixed-race girl and, despite the title, ended up with a white female protagonist.

Ultimately, I felt Joanie was too selfish to be a sympathetic character. For example, she never tells Nnenna’s father that she is pregnant and she never tells Nnenna anything about her father. She constantly puts the black characters at a disadvantage by not telling either of them the truth. It almost feels like she makes assumptions about them and what’s best for them. In the end, perhaps I couldn’t connect with a white woman who stops the black characters from being able to make their own choices.

Overall, this is definitely a good book and worth reading. It covers big themes with a lot of complexity and subtlety. I would have liked a bigger ‘bang’ as the climax of the novel to reveal why Joanie is not with Nnenna’s father, and would have liked to dial down the subplots and switch in POV in exchange for more focus and reflection on Nnenna. However, it’s clear that Nzeulu is a great writer and I’m excited to see his future work.

FAVOURITE QUOTE: (Sorry, my copy isn’t next to me but there’s loads of quotables so I’ll update this later!)