Apr 18, 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – A Review



May 2013, Fiction
Reagan Arthur Books, 304 pages
 ISBN-13: 978-0316230810

NoViolet Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “Hitting Budapest” about a group of children navigating life in a Zimbabwe shanty town. You can read it here. She took this short story and turned it into a full length novel, and voilà we have We Need New Names, her debut novel.

The story is told from the point of view of Darling, the 10 year-old protagonist. We first meet Darling and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina as they cross a forbidden road which takes them from their shanty into a nice suburb, Budapest. She describes Budapest as having big houses, with satellite dishes on the roofs, neat gravelled yards, tall fences and tall trees heavy with fruit. And for this group of hungry children, it’s the fruit they’re after – guavas. Though they know not to overindulge due to the resulting constipation, they still do because the guavas are the only way to kill the hunger.

As each day passes every one of them shares their dream of leaving for a better place. Times are tough in Zimbabwe; the economic and political instability have rocked the foundation of many people’s lives. Jobs and money are scarce, and those with means (or sheer courage) have fled, often leaving behind the elderly and the very young. Darling’s dream is to go to America, to be with her Aunt Fostalina. Her friends mock her, saying this will never happen but she hangs onto it against all odds. They each hang on to the promise of a better future, elsewhere.

Darling eventually gets her chance to move to America but not before bearing witness to some pretty grim happenings that literally could have been pulled from the front page of Zimbabwean news dailies. These would otherwise be painful encounters to describe yet somehow through Darling’s voice, her naïveté and innocence take away some of the ugliness.

In the second half of the book, Darling is now in America living with Aunt Fostalina and her family. She bears the bitter cold winters and homesickness with a shocking level of maturity for someone her age. She reasons that she can deal with the snow and the absence of her closest friends because at least she has food, lots of it and all kinds. Here, she doesn’t go hungry.

Though she struggles to make friends due to the typical, idiotic behaviour of school children, who make fun of others for looking and sounding different, she remains focused and adjusts quite admirably to her new life.

As time passes, the more she adjusts to America, the further she drifts from Zimbabwe and the people she left behind. This guilt eats away at her, and she becomes exiled in a sense.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book. I think NoViolet does a good job showing the effects of poverty on a nation’s psyche, the alienation felt by those who make the difficult decision to leave home, and the longing for home.

I had some minor quibbles. There are some areas of the book, particularly in the second half, I felt could’ve been touched on better and perhaps even tied up a little neater for better flow. It felt a little disconnected at times and took away some of my enjoyment.

All that said, if this book or writer has been on your radar. I’d say definitely give this book a try!

This review was originally published on Mail and Guardian's Voices of Africa site. 

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