We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

we need new namesLeaving in droves…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

I admit to being somewhat conflicted about my view of this book. Worthy of its shortlisting for the 2013 Booker, I agree, but I’m also rather glad it didn’t win. Let me start by getting my criticisms out of the way and then I’ll try to explain why I think it’s very much worth reading nonetheless.

This is the story of Darling, a young girl living in a shanty town in Zimbabwe. When we first meet her, she is ten and spends most of her time with her little group of friends. Through them, we get a child’s-eye view of the devastation that has been wrought on the country during the Mugabe period. At the half-way point, Darling is sent to America to live with her aunt in Michigan, and the second half is taken up with seeing the immigrant experience as Darling learns about this society that is so different from anything she has known.

To play country game…first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries…Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?

The problem I have is that it feels a little as if Bulawayo has started by writing down a list of all the bad things we associate with Zimbabwe and then a similar list of all the downsides of the US. The book is episodic with each chapter being a little story on its own, and each story has a ‘point’. So we get the chapter on Aids, one on female genital mutilation, then incest and rape, white people being run off their properties, the rigging of elections and the violence that goes along with that, and so on. In America, we get out of control kids, school shootings, porn, obsession with looks and weight, celebrity culture etc. It’s a bleak picture of both countries with the over-riding feeling being that the grass isn’t as much greener for immigrants as they expected it to be. It all feels a little contrived and amalgamated, and I couldn’t help feeling that, firstly, it wasn’t telling me much I didn’t know and, secondly, that there was an almost exploitative and voyeuristic element to the stringing together of all of these horrors.

Photo: AFP/Jekesai Njikizana
Photo: AFP/Jekesai Njikizana

However…

The writing is fresh and original and Darling and her friends are brought vividly to life, especially in the Zimbabwean section. With a less than thorough understanding of what’s going on around them, they are the observers – the reader is the interpreter. Although there’s never enough food to go round (except briefly when the NGOs pay their regular visits) there is a sense of community – a community that is tottering on the point of collapse, yes, but still hanging on to old traditions. Despite all the bad things happening around them, the children seem on the surface to be like children anywhere – breaking rules and taking risks, full of bravado when in their group, dreaming of a better future. Bulawayo very effectively uses the games they play to show the effect that their experiences have had on them – games based on the relative importance of countries, with their own country low on the list, games of Find bin Laden; and gradually, as they witness more and more violent and irrational behaviour around them, the games darken too.

NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo

I found the American portion of the book patchier in its effectiveness, but Bulawayo gets across very clearly the difficulties of learning to live in a new culture, always speaking in a second language, and the longing for home. She writes very movingly about the people left behind in Zimbabwe, relying on the dollars that the immigrants send home. And she gives a believable and poignant picture of this young girl gradually losing touch with the friends and family back home, unable to explain to them what she is experiencing in the reality of this new world they have dreamed about.

I found Bulawayo’s writing style hugely skilful in giving an authenticity to Darling’s voice throughout and allowing her language to grow and change as she moves through adolescence. Although I had a problem with the tick-list of horrors, I still found myself moved deeply on several occasions, and in particular by the short chapter at the centre of the book – an interlude between the two sections, where Bulawayo describes the exodus of a generation from her troubled homeland in language so beautiful and evocative it could fairly be described as a prose poem.

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay.

So in the end, the quality of the writing and language, together with the emotionalism that Bulawayo achieves without ever allowing mawkishness to creep in, makes this a book that I am glad I have read and highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

28 thoughts on “We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

  1. As this is a debut novel, I wonder if it was the ‘novel she needed to get out of her system’ before she embarks on something else. I am always intrigued by books describing cultural differences, the immigrant experience, mismatched expectations.

    • It always worries me when a first novel is so autobiographical will the author have a second novel in her? In this case, I very much hope so – at times her writing really reaches a level of beauty.

  2. Great review. You made this book sound worth reading, which the “blurb” doesn’t, and none of the talking heads at the Awards ceremony managed to convey anything that caused me to feel enthusiastic. Not really my sort of book, but maybe I’ll give this a try.

    • Thank you! I had much the same reaction – the book didn’t sound at all interesting and I only read it because it was a Booker contender. For once, the book was actually better than the blurb suggested – a rarity when every book is described as ‘best book ever written’!

  3. I’ve not read this yet but from what you say I think I should get round to it sooner rather than later. It sounds as though she has deliberately tried to use the structure to reflect the content and that can be dangerous if you’re not experienced. However, given that structure is what I’m all about I really ought to have a look and see what it is she’s up to.

    • I think you’re right in that she was very conscious of structure when writing – too much so, perhaps. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it if you get time to read it. 🙂

  4. FEF is always reading interesting books, I think–in one way or another. Cultural differences always fascinate me, too.

    The professor sees what you’re currently reading. Nice! Now, I can start. 😀

    (Oh, what do you think the author means by her first name?)

  5. Perhaps she’s “no shrinking violet”? Nicely balanced review! Sounds like this one is worth the read for the language, alone, although I usually dislike books with “points.” I think I’ll give this one a browse when I’m at my bookstore.

    Thanks!

    • Mm – that could be it, since she’s chosen it herself. I like the capital letter in the middle of the name.

      Browse chapter 10 then – the interlude chapter. Short enough that you won’t be arrested for loitering and stands kind of separate from the two sections of the book. And beautiful…

      • Ha! My local bookstore would never think of kicking me out for loitering. They serve cookies and warm drinks during the holidays. :o) I stay long and spend more $$.
        😀

        I’ll do as you say. Thanks for the tips!

          • Let me know how it works out!

            My son came up with an idea for air delivery by Amazon quad copter. Little did he know that Amazon is in the “idea stage” for doing this very thing, delivery within a half hour of ordering. I think your hot chocolate would still be hot. But you might have to wait a couple of years so they can work out the kinks in the system. Take a look!

            http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/amazon-floats-the-notion-of-delivery-drones/?emc=eta1&_r=0

            • HahaHA! Somehow that just tickles me! No more of this pesky waiting around till the next morning…instant gratification. D’you think they’d package all your items in one box, or if you ordered all your Christmas presents at once would they arrive in squadron formation? Will they have little sensors underneath to stop them splatting the cats?

              Sometimes I think the human race is sane, then I see something like this…(but I bet I’d sign up for it!)

  6. FictionFan – What a well-written and thoughtful post. You do such a good job of outlining what worked and what didn’t for you in this novel. I honestly can’t comment on it, not having read it, but it sounds wroth reading even given the things you thought didn’t work. I do like the idea of a fresh perspective and writing style. I may give it a go.

    • Thank you, Margot! I enjoyed it much more than I expected to and several days after finishing it’s still lingering in my mind. If you get time(!) then definitely one worth reading, I think.

  7. I haven’t read this one, but I do enjoy books from different cultures. Not sure I would like that each chapter has to make a point though. I prefer storytelling than standing on a soapbox.

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