I listened to NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names on audio. Overall I enjoyed this book. I would call it a light-hearted pallet cleanser more than a major literary fiction award winner. The narration was difficult at first but after listening to Robin Miles accent, I became accustomed to it and enjoyed her reading of the book.
The bad thing about listening to an audio book is that one can not take notes and underline passages that stick out. I finished it almost a month ago and I am just now getting around to writing the review. My problem with writing the review is that I just can’t really think of much to write about.
We Need New Names tells the story Darling, a 10 year old girl living in Zimbabwe who eventually moves to Chicago. The book is more humorous than serious even though it deals with several important social issues. For instance, the beginning of the book Darling is running around with her friends stealing guavas. Her friend’s names are: Bastard, Chipo (Cheepo), Godknows, Sbho (Spoe) and Stina. These kids are portrayed as somewhat rowdy but overall good kids. They play outdoors and make up games and seem to have fun even though they are living in poverty and have to steal guavas to have something to eat. They know American pop idols like Lady Gaga and Oprah. They make up games like “Kill Bin Laden” and “Country Game”. (A note about “Country Game” – I doubt seriously that these kids understand world politics and geography enough to follow the rules they set themselves for this game. I know I sure would not be good at playing the game with my limited geography skills and aversion to politics. I also doubt that most of our high school seniors in the US could play the game with the knowledge the Zimbabweans were portrayed with in the book, but I degress…)
Darling eventually moves to the States to live with her aunt. The book still has many humorous moments as Darling matures living in America.
The book attempts to show the poverty and suffering in a violent third world country in contrast to similar conditions in America. It also attempts to show the plight of being an illegal alien in the US. I believe that Bulawayo gets the point across without being too preachy. Her approach may have been too nonchalant to portray the extent of the true depressed nature of Zimbabwe, but if she tackled this subject matter without the humor she probably would not have as many readers.
I did wonder about the title of the book. The phrase “we need new names” is used once in the book, but for the life of me I can not figure out why that was chosen as the title. I think a better title would have been “Guavas in Paradise”. Oh well.
We Need New Names was an entertaining light read that was a nice oasis in a list of more serious and literary books. I have no idea how it made the Booker long list much less the short list, but I am glad I listened to it just for its humorous approach to social issues that aren’t that funny.