With The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, Okechuckwu Nzelu has crafted a brilliant novel about a young woman trying to discover her Nigerian roots and navigate the complexities of love.
‘Being black can be hard sometimes, and it can be harder if you’re a woman. Harder still, if you have an active imagination-slash-undiagnosed anxiety disorder and a high proportion of white people in your life. If the actual racism doesn’t get you, the worrying will.
… after you get enough wary glances on public transport, after enough people cross the street to avoid you, after you’ve heard how attractive you are ‘for a black girl’ enough times.’
Okechukwu Nzelu’s debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney (Dialogue), considers race, love, identity and more in a story about a Mancunian teenager exploring her Nigerian heritage.
As a white English woman, I was wary of reviewing a book that is so much about race – I have very little lived experience of being ‘other’ in British society and I was conscious that there are many aspects of Nzelu’s novel that I could mis-interpret or misunderstand. But Nnenna Maloney also needs to be read by those of us who aren’t black; who aren’t an ethnic minority, so that we can try to understand what it means not to be white in modern Britain. And Nzelu encourages such readership: he is a black man voicing a middle class white woman (amongst others), thereby inviting the white middle classes to engage with his narrative.
The novel also freakishly mirrors my own experiences: I was at Cambridge in the nineties. I had a Nigerian boyfriend. I sat on the very same wall outside King’s where Joanie sits with Maurice.
In any case, to say that Nzelu’s novel is only about racism and issues of race is reductive. Nnenna Maloney is also very much about love. It’s about lost love; about something that looks like love, but may not be; it’s about teenage love; about the difficulties of finding love. And it’s about the love between a mother and a daughter: single parent Joanie Maloney and her teenage daughter, Nnenna.
Joanie and Nnenna are the focus for much of Nnenna Maloney. Joanie is a crossword setter and a white single mother to Nnenna, who is a beautiful, talented, intelligent teenager attending the sixth form of a competitive Manchester school. Nnenna’s father, Maurice, a Nigerian Christian, is absent, but his story unfolds as the novel progresses.
As Nnenna realises that she might have a life beyond Manchester, the mystery of Maurice, the uncertainty of his whereabouts, the Nigerian hinterland offered by his biological input, grows and stretches within her.
Initially, Joanie and Nnenna enjoy a good relationship. To Nnenna’s dozy boyfriend, Danny, the women seem more like sisters than parent and daughter. Nnenna’s best friend, Steph, remarks ‘you don’t know you’re born,’ envying Nnenna’s ability to talk to her mother about anything. The friends’ testimonies are true: Joanie is an astonishingly kind mother. She is attentive, trustful, caring. She dotes on Nnenna, picking her up from her fast food evening job (Joanie is never late). Joanie refrains from remarking how the smell of fried meat sticks to her daughter, stinking out their car. Because she loves her Nnenna: ‘love is such a tiny thing. Neither of them even noticed it as they sat silently in the car, smelling of unholy meats.’ Nzelu is so good at these details, at articulating the miniscule moments that make up relationships.
But Nnenna’s growing up. At parents’ evening, when Nnenna’s French teacher suggests she attend the Sorbonne, Joanie sees Nnenna begin to change – her face, ‘the boldness in it, which she loves, became impertinence; the determination, ingratitude’. And then, of course, there’s Nnenna’s absent father, Maurice. As Nnenna realises that she might have a life beyond Manchester, the mystery of Maurice, the uncertainty of his whereabouts, the Nigerian hinterland offered by his biological input, grows and stretches within her. It widens the gap between mother and daughter.
Nnenna becomes more aware of her difference, to her mother, to her friends, to her peers. She wants to know more about Maurice. Unable to question Joanie, who is too emotional, Nnenna begins to explore her paternal heritage, becoming more and more secretive, her journey internal. Although this seems like normal behaviour – as a teenager I remember feeling that adults’ lives (those of my parents and teachers) existed in another dimension to the emotional and mental space occupied by me and my friends – it is also because Nnenna is marginalised, silenced by her skin colour, by her paternity.
Nzelu illustrates this nicely by juxtaposing Nnenna’s studying of French with that of her interest in Igbo, her father’s language. Studying French and attending university in Paris is an accepted part of mainstream British life for a smart girl. Learning Igbo is not. The phone calls she has with her Aunty Mary on a crackling landline is a metaphor for her connection to her Nigerian heritage – just out of reach; vague; incomprehensible.
As Nnenna internalises her pursuit of self-knowledge, both mother and daughter become duplicitous: Nnenna because she doesn’t want to upset her mother; Joanie because she’s trying to peer into the secrets she believes her daughter is hiding.
Again, Nzelu is so good at the details of the mother-daughter relationship, at pinpointing the crux of an exchange. Joanie catches Nnenna learning Igbo in her room, and she tries to go gently, saying very little, but Nzelu shows the fragility inherent in the mother-daughter relationship:
‘“But … why now?” said Joanie. There was something in her voice that was like a red flag to a bull – the vulnerability in it was all too … much. It was unearned. Greedy.’
The relationship frays, fragments. The women lose their way. Love is tested.
But Nnenna Maloney doesn’t just belong to Nnenna. As it pings between 1992 and 2009, Nzelu focusses on Joanie, on her doomed relationship with Maurice, on Joanie’s misery as Nnenna, to whom she was once so close, drifts further and further away. Other characters weave in and out of the narrative. Nnenna’s boyfriend, Danny, expresses his own, confused point of view, as does his friend Amit (although he only gets a few lines). With these characters, as with Nnenna, Nzelu beautifully explores the sexual and social uncertainties of teenage life.
Jonathan is a brilliant example of how Nzelu beautifully captures his characters’ humanity. He depicts Jonathan’s pathetic acceptance of people’s paltry affections when we, the readers, know he deserves so much more.
Most wonderfully, though, we hear the voice of Jonathan an unlucky-in-love gay black man; a hapless, handsome, lacking-in-confidence Christian, a friend of Maurice’s, the catalyst for Joanie and Maurice’s initial meeting in the nineties, who reappears in Joanie’s life in the noughties when he moves to Manchester for work. Jonathan is a brilliant example of how Nzelu beautifully captures his characters’ humanity. He depicts Jonathan’s pathetic acceptance of people’s paltry affections when we, the readers, know he deserves so much more. Jonathan’s story provides a nice relief from the drama of the Maloneys’ lives. Yet, just as Jonathan is marginalised by his intersectionality – he is a gay black Christian and, almost as unfortunately, a thoroughly decent man – he is marginalised by the narrative of Nnenna Maloney. As the most interesting and most empathetic character in Nnenna Maloney, Jonathan deserves to be at the centre of his own narrative.
Nnenna Maloney reads like a book that has been lovingly curated – pared down from a multitude of stories into a narrative that shifts between the nineties and noughties, between a multitude of perspectives. It is a delightful novel, but it could be two more: one about Jonathan and another (perhaps YA), about Nnenna’s next adventures. Then again, it is part of the charm of Nnenna Maloney that Nzelu leaves his narratives open to so much more.
Another lovely quality of the novel is that it is not London-centric. Whilst American literature roams all over North America, so much British literature is centred around London or the South of England, where the middle classes congregate. It’s refreshing to have a novel set elsewhere. Cambridge appears, but more as a backdrop to the interactions between younger Joanie and her peers. The only problem is that the Manchester setting felt so much like London, where chicken shops and snooty media men abound, that I had difficulty recognising it as not-London. This may be a testimony to modern Britain where all cities seem alike, but it is more likely that Nzelu’s focus is on his characters – and Manchester, like Cambridge, is merely the setting.
Nnenna Maloney is a beautiful novel. It is a funny, warm, gentle urge for all of us to practice empathy – because, as REM said, everybody hurts.
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is published by Dialogue Books and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. Click here for more information about Okechukwu Nzelu. You can follow Okechukwu Nzelu and Dialogue Books on Twitter.