We Need New Names
A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
2013 / 304 Pages
So, the first book on the Man Booker longlist that I attacked was the brightly jacketed We Need New Names. However, the colorful and hopeful outside really has no bearing on the contents within. The story is of Darling, a young girl living in the slums of Zimbabwe. We meet her and her friends at around age ten and they, narratively speaking, take us through what it’s like to be a kid in Zimbabwe. Stealing guavas to stave off hunger, encountering a woman hanging dead from a tree, watching marauding gangs attack the local white population — all like it’s child’s play. And for Darling and her friends, it is.
This is what is so unsettling and interesting about Bulawayo’s novel. The horrors of the times in a dangerous country are depicted through the eyes of a child, who does not really know differently. Sure, Darling references her life before. Before the coup, before the slums, before the regular rapes, murders, gruesome attacks, and racial wars, but she seems to take it in stride, knowing she cannot do much to change the course of history.
Zimbabwe’s history is rife with colonialism. As Rhodesia, a white population came to the country as the “ruling” class and certainly the wealthier. As a response, the local black population was stymied and a boiling brew eventually erupted. The country became Zimbabwe. Thereafter, a tyrannical “government” led by Robert Mugabe threw the country into turmoil. But, throughout this, Darling introduces us to the beauty in the cultures and people of Zimbabwe. It is a horrific juxtaposition.
Darling does talk about going to America to stay with her aunt, but she really doesn’t cling too much to this hope, so she goes about her life. And then, one chapter she and her friends reenacting a gruesome murder of a friend as a game; the next, she is watching the snow fall in Detroit. This happens so suddenly; no struggle, no transition. I would have preferred to see the process, but Bulawayo left that out.
In America, Darling continues to narrate as she sees things. She calls it as she sees it. And while it seems she is fitting in with few problems, she still yearns for her home. The concept of what “home” means is a frequent theme throughout the book. As is “things falling apart.” I can’t help but think this frequent refrain is in reference to Chinua Achebe’s incredible and archetypal book, Things Fall Apart, about Nigeria and its experiences with British colonialism.
The most poignant thing about this novel is that we, as adult readers, are way more aware of what certain situations mean than our child narrator. There is little judgment provided by Darling, little reflection, and we, the readers are forced to do that ourselves. This makes for an interesting read. We are told something by Darling in a simple way, but we read it as something much deeper. There is more to Bulawayo’s words on the page.The skill to deliver this economy is something that I think does make it a good candidate for such a prestigious prize.
Do I think it will win the Prize? If it did, it’d be a departure of what I think is traditionally British, upper-crust stories filled with, frankly, a fair amount of pretention thrown in. I think We Need New Names is something different and worth reading. I am not completely in awe, but it made me thoughtful, and to me, that is the mark of a good book.