‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’ by Okechukwu Nzelu – eARC Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is a comic novel about Nnenna, a half-Nigerian teenager living in modern-day Manchester with her mother Joanie.

As Nnenna approaches womanhood she starts trying to connect with her Igbo-Nigerian culture. Her once close and tender relationship with her mother becomes strained as she asks probing questions about her father who she’s never met and whom her mother who refuses to discuss.

Each chapter begins with a biblical quote which harks back to the beginning of Maurice and Joanie’s relationship – meeting in a church group in a café in Cambridge – but is really Nnenna’s diary headings which she is trying to hide from her mother’s prying eyes. Nnenna is asking big questions of how to ‘be’ when she doesn’t know who she is as Joanie wonders how to truly love when she has never been loved.

Okechukwu Nzelu brings us a novel about two women, big questions and lots of laughter in a unique and distinctive new voice.

My Review

I was browsing the NetGalley catalogue the other night and stumbled across this title. I had never heard of it before but it had a ringing endorsement from Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie, that went as follows ‘Effortlessly capture[s] the tricky nuance of life, love, race, sexuality and familial relationships’ and I thought that sounds fabulous plus I adored Queenie so I put in a request and the next day this eARC made its way into my hands.

AND WOW AM I SO GLAD I READ IT!!!!

This book is an effervescent delight. It absolutely fizzes with wit and humour that made it a joy to read from page one; I laughed heartily all the way through that fantastic opening prologue! But the story also shakes you to the core with its stripped back emotion and honesty.

The novel primarily follows the titular character Nnenna Maloney. Nnenna is nearly seventeen years old and is just on that precipice between childhood and adulthood. Nnenna is to all intents and purposes a model sixteen-nearly-seventeen year old. She works hard at school, is a loving daughter, a good friend… But something is missing. Nnenna is mixed race and constantly questions her identity; in particular her feelings about being black as she has been brought up by her white single mother Joanie in Manchester and knows next to nothing about her father Maurice. This crisis of identity leads to a strain on her relationship with her mother (and her boyfriend) as she seeks out knowledge about both her father and her Nigerian Igbo heritage without her mother’s knowing.

We also get to see life through Nnenna’s mum Joanie’s eyes. And see how paralysed she is by the thoughts of her daughter growing up and why it is she is so unable to discuss Nnenna’s father with Nnenna. The book uses flashbacks to show us what life was like for Joanie when as a university student she fell in love with Maurice and got pregnant with Nnenna.

The book also includes the viewpoint of Joanie and Maurice’s friend Jonathan and shows how difficult it has been for him as a gay man struggling with his identity and depression throughout his whole life. His story ingeniously links the character arcs of both Nnenna and Joanie as he becomes almost an intermediary for understanding between mother and daughter as his own search for belonging is something that both mother and daughter are able to relate to. But don’t misunderstand me, he is not just in the book to serve their storylines as his own character arc is treated with just as much importance. He is also my favourite character in the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is so incredibly well written with great characters that really made me empathise with them and their storylines. What was so great is that when I was reading the viewpoint of Nnenna I was totally on board with her being so angry at her mum and wanted to pretty much slap her mum for being so stubborn and pigheaded… And yet as soon as the book took up Joanie’s side of the story I completely understood her and desperately wanted Nnenna to see things from her mum’s point of view… I just love that this book has messy characters!!! It made them seem all the more real and believable.

And I loved all of the side characters!!! Especially Nnenna’s group of teenage friends. Each character added worth and a dynamism to the storyline and I just loved how everyone had their own little character arc. It is so rare to read a book with so many comprehensible minor storylines that truly enrich the major plot of the book.

I highly recommend this to anyone who likes their reads to make them laugh but also to make them feel incredibly moved. And to anyone who wants to read more about societal attitudes to race and race-related privileges/disadvantages in modern day UK.

An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Dialogue Books / Little Brown Book Group UK, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

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13 thoughts on “‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’ by Okechukwu Nzelu – eARC Book Review

  1. Great review Emer!! 💙 I’ve been in such a phase lately of reading books like this that put an emphasis on race, society and sexuality… there’s just something so moving and gripping about them! Especially when the characters are all well developed 💙 I’ve added this to my TBR – fingers crossed it’s still up on Netgalley 🙏 Jen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only requested it last week Jen and it’s out in early October so should still be on NetGalley. I got it from the uk version of the site so don’t know if that’ll affect things for you. And I totally get you. It’s so important to have books that are effortlessly diverse and this one really is. :)))

      Liked by 1 person

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