Thursday, 2 July 2020

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nnenna is the only child of single mother and Cambridge Classics graduate Joanie and a Nigerian father she has never met. She and her mother are close, but Nnenna has never been able to get her mother to talk about her father. So when she begins to explore her Igbo heritage, she does so in secrecy.

The book captures the intensity of the relationship between a single mother and her only daughter, and the peculiar pain (for both of them) of the daughter’s first adolescent rebellion. It examines what it means to grow up without knowing about a significant part of your heritage, and how a white parent, however well-intentioned, can be blind to the impact that has on their child.

The story is peppered with examples of the sort of everyday sexism and racism women of colour face every day. (“I’m not normally attracted to girls like you but...”) You can see how these begin to chip away at Nnenna’s sense of self, as she imagines the conversations her teachers might be having about her behind her back.

This book was not quite what I was expecting when I first opened it, and as when you step onto something that is moving in a way you don’t expect, it can take a little while to get used to the direction of travel. The tone early on reminded me of books like Frederic Raphael’s Glittering Prizes, which looked at the lives of Cambridge graduates in the 1950s to 70s. And though Nnenna is central to the story, the narrative is divided between her, her parents and their group of Cambridge friends in the 1990s, and in the present day, her mother, one of those friends (a gay West Indian man) and a couple of Nnenna’s friends. Through those additional characters, the book also explores generational, class and cultural attitudes to gay men, and shines a light on exploitation within the gay community too.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between this and Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, which shares some of the same themes. Nnenna’s world, among largely well-off pupils at a high-achieving school in Manchester, is a long way from Abu and Karl’s London comprehensive. But teenage dilemmas remain much the same, regardless of background.

A witty, troubling tale of coming of age as a mixed-race child of a single, white mother.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney was shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives shared among a large number of characters

Perfect Accompaniment: Groundrice and fried plantain

Genre: Contemporary, Coming of Age, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

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