NoVoilet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel starts off with a lot of promise compared to some of this year’s other contenders. It is immediately readable with a storyline that promises poignancy and individuality, but like so many other 2013 MBP nominees, We Need New Names ultimately disappoints.
Our narrator, Darling, is ten years old and living in her home country of Zimbabwe when the story opens. While she and her friends spend their days stealing guavas and wandering the streets, they all long for something more. Even amidst poverty, hunger, and disease, Darling and her friends are deeply aware of what they’re missing out on. When they think of America and Western life, they think of Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, and Lamborghinis. But as Darling soon finds out, American life isn’t all glitz and glamour.
When Darling moves in with her aunt and uncle in Detroit, she expects her days to be filled with leisure and luxury, but much to her disappointment, Michigan isn’t the America she dreamed of. It’s here where We Need New Names loses its credibility with me. I understand that the book is about reality vs. expectations and that it explores themes of displacement, national identity, and the idea of home, but the intentions fall flat in the execution. For one thing, Darling’s character is incredibly inconsistent and directionless. In Zimbabwe she was frightened of men and disgusted by their ability to conquer and impregnate women. She even tries to help her friend Chipo have an abortion with the help of another clueless adolescent with a rusty coat hanger. In America, Darling and her new friends spend their days watching hard core porn and sexual torture videos. They aren’t necessarily proud of it, but that doesn’t change their behavior.
Back home, they repeatedly discussed the importance of names and identity, yet when Chipo tells Darling via Skype that she named her daughter after her, Darling is unimpressed. She says:
[T]hey claimed they decided to name her after me so there would be another Darling in case something happened to me in America. It’s kind of cute, but I don’t know how to feel about it, somebody being named after me like I’m dead or something.
Really? Who wouldn’t be completely touched that their best friend named their child after you? Apparently not Darling. In fact, nothing really impresses Darling. She hates the snow and cold of Detroit, is bored by the internet, tired of going to school and jaded about her jobs. I understand that America isn’t all milk and honey, but does she even remember what her home country was like? Let’s recap: She and her friends had to steal guavas to avoid starving, her father died a slow and painful death from AIDS, her best friend was raped and impregnated at 10 years old, and the country is constantly in fear of the military. But hey, at least she didn’t have any biology homework there!
With this novel, Bulawayo has the opportunity to thoughtfully explore the notion of home, roots, and identity, but instead, I was completely distracted by Darling’s obnoxious attitude and character inconsistencies. It’s just such a transition from the Darling we meet in the first half of the book. I know that moving to a completely different country is sure to change people, but Darling goes from likeable and compelling to spoiled and bratty in a matter of a few chapters. Darling’s displacement and loneliness is heartbreaking, but it’s hard to sympathize with a girl who has nothing but disdain for her American life. Sure, she might not drive a Lamborghini or look like Kim Kardashian, but she’s not the only immigrant who’s ever had to struggle to find a sense of home and belonging. Detroit may not be paradise, but she was given a life of nourishment, leisure, pleasure, and shelter and the only thing she does is complain about it. And I have very little patience for such an ungrateful and disrespectful narrator – especially one who’s voice feels so contrived and inorganic.
This review was simultaneously posted on Typographical Era