Premise: ten year old Darling lives a precarious life in Zimbabwe, stealing guavas and grappling with life in poverty after her home was destroyed by paramilitary police. A relative in America offers the chance of an escape, but Darling finds that her new life is not everything she dreamed of.
Thoughts: NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel was Booker nominated in 2013 and it’s easy to see why; like 2016’s nominated Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it juxtaposes personal stories with real-life political conflict, in this case the postcolonial struggle in Zimbabwe. There’s a lot of issues running throughout the novel; Darling’s friend, Chibo, is pregnant, having been raped by a relative, while the AIDS crisis is also an important factor. Rather unsubtly, the ghetto in which Darling and her friends live is ironically called Paradise, which only highlights their deprivation. Somehow, We Need New Names doesn’t become a depressing novel, which is probably down to the vibrancy of the child characters, whose understanding of the problems around them is limited enough to camouflage the tragedies that afflict them.
The novel becomes something quite different when Darling is “saved,” moving to Detroit (presumably also used ironically, given that city’s well-publicised problems) to live with her aunt. School is too easy; attitudes are too different. In one noteworthy episode, Darling smacks a misbehaving child at a wedding and is shocked by the horrified reaction of the white guests. Bulawayo also explores common themes like the overwhelming responsibility of the immigrant, duty-bound to provide for those left behind; this sense of crushing obligation is particularly evident late on, as time speeds up and the reader sees how Darling’s life develops. There’s a particularly poignant section where she speaks to her old friends, only to feel completely divorced from them and her home.
In Conclusion: I really enjoyed We Need New Names, having wanted to read it for ages.Bulawayo achieves an admirable balance between broad cultural and political commentary and the personal stories of her characters, all of whom I genuinely cared about. While it covers lots of pertinent issues, I wouldn’t call it an “issues book;” it manages to be entertaining at the same time as enlightening, and creates pathos without being depressing to read. It’s definitely worth picking up if you haven’t read it already.