“PREGNANT at graduation. Unmarried, the black father nowhere to be seen. These things aren’t supposed to happen to people who go to Cambridge.” So laments Joanie Maloney, unmarried mother of Nnenna.
The action of this novel ranges between 1992 and 2010, with crucial early scenes in Cambridge, and most of it set in Joanie’s hometown of Manchester, where she is bringing up her daughter Nnenna. But she doesn’t tell Nnenna anything about the identity of Maurice, her Igbo-Nigerian father.
Now that Nnenna has reached the age of 16, she is desperate to understand her colour and her background, to know who her father is, and to reveal the unknown half of her true identity.
So she starts asking crucial questions about her existence; but when Joanie finds Nnenna’s private notebook and guiltily reads it, she is amazed that it contains only painfully relevant biblical quotations (the very same ones found heading each chapter of Nzelu’s novel): Chapter 1: “Iron sharpens iron; and one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27.17); Chapter 11: “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Proverbs 14.13); and, heading the last chapter, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. . .” (Genesis 3.70.
The epilogue lacks a quotation, because there is no need: Nnenna is now on her own in Paris, continuing her studies and fulfilling herself at last.
One of my earliest pieces for the Church Times was about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel Purple Hibiscus (Books, 2 November 2006), and I remember feeling reluctant to use the word “masterpiece” of that book, which indeed it was.
Okechukwu Nzelu is another new Nigerian writer to celebrate: The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney has the same clear, well-written prose and natural dialogue, the same important human issues deftly touched on, the clashes between generations, and, crucially, how skin-colour can warp, but also illuminate, a human life.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney
Dialogue Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30