Our good friend WoodsieGirl has read all the books on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for the last few years. This is not because she is an avid reader, with varied interests and is constantly on the lookout for new great fiction. She does this purely to mock my inability to organize my book list. Honestly. It’s evil.
Anyhoo, once again, she has kindly written up reviews of each book for us.
WE NEED NEW NAMES
THE BLURB (Amazon)
‘To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?’Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices.They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is a coming-of-age tale. It follows a young girl, Darling, through her childhood in the optimistically named Paradise, a slum somewhere in Zimbabwe, and her move to America as a young adolescent.
In the first part of the book, we meet Darling’s gang of friends in Paradise – kids with names like Godknows and Bastard, who spend their days playing games made up from hearing the news around them (like “Find Bin Laden”) and leading raids on the nearby, wealthy town to steal guavas from the trees. Life is hard in Paradise: there are frequent references to the children’s hunger (hence the guava raids), and hints of the violence that characterises their lives. In one memorable chapter the kids find the dead body of a young woman hanging from a tree, and after initially running terrified from the scene, they return when one of them points out that the dead woman’s shoes looked new, so they could make good money from selling them. Darling’s father is dying of AIDS, and 11-year-old Chipo is pregnant after being raped by her grandfather. However, it’s not a bleak book: despite the hardship, Darling and her gang of friends act much as children everywhere do, accepting the world the way it is and playing their games.
We see the social and political upheaval of the area through the children’s eyes, as they describe incidents they don’t really understand: such as the displacement of their families from their homes that lead to their lives in Paradise, and the initial jubilation followed by disappointment of democratic elections in the country. Sometimes these moments are successful, but I sometimes found them a bit unconvincing: as when the children act out the murder of a revolutionary leader. This could have been a very powerful scene, and it is graphic enough to pack a punch, but I just found it a bit contrived. By comparison, another scene describing a visit from an NGO handing out toys and clothes for the children, and food for the adults, is much more affecting – Bulawayo does a fantastic job of portraying the children’s excitement at the visit, mixed with the shame they feel and sense from the adults. “They just like taking pictures, these NGO people…they don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that maybe we would prefer they didn’t do it…We don’t complain because after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.”
All the children dream of escaping Paradise, but it’s only Darling who manages it: she has an aunt in America, and as a young teenager she is sent to live with her. The second half of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America, and the disappointment she finds. It is not how she expected it: it is cold (Darling is unnerved by the snow: “coldness that makes like it wants to kill you, like it’s telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.”), unfriendly, and she misses the familiar sights, sounds and smells of Paradise. Ultimately she feels guilty for leaving Paradise. When she speaks to Chipo (by now raising a young daughter) on the phone, Chipo chides her: “You think watching on the BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t…it’s us who stayed here feel the real suffering.”
We Need New Names is a book with a lot to say about Zimbabwe, immigration, cultural and physical displacement, poverty and relative poverty. However, I didn’t think it hung together all that well as a novel. It felt more like a series of short stories, and I think it might have worked better in that way. The second half of the book in particular is fragmented, which made it difficult to really get invested in the story or with the characters. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s the strongest off the shortlist – it’s not a patch on The Lowlands, which deals with some similar themes.