September 2, 2013 by markstani
We Need New Names (pub. Chatto & Windus) starts with the story of ten-year-old Darling in a Zimbabwe slum. Mugabe’s so-called land-grabs are in full effect, all opposition is being brutally supressed, and the sense of hopelessness is palpable. Amid such hell, Darling and her friends – among them, boys called Bastard and Godknows – scour rich suburbs for guavas and play ‘country games’ which facilitate their dreams of escape.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s first novel plunges deep into the eroding and increasingly abused culture and tradition of the region, from the crazily-drawn Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro to a faith healer called Vodloza who claims to cure all ailments from AIDS and epilepsy to BAD LUCK GETTING VISAS ESPECIALLY TO USA AND BRITAIN.
When they are not squatting in agony from gorging on too many guavas – a fruit notorious for causing constipation – Darling and her friends create new games in a graveyard called Heavenway. I used to be very afraid of graveyards and death and such things, says Darling, but not anymore. There is just no sense being afraid when you live so near the graves; it would be like the tongue fearing the teeth.
The device of telling a truly horrific tale of a nation through the prism of a young and innocent narrator is of course nothing new. But Bulawayo utilises it to excellent effect, steering the reader into becoming a sort of supporting cast for Darling and her crew of rascals, and making the horrors, when they do arrive, all the more devastating for the naïve incomprehension with which they are described.
Unlike her friends, Darling does have an escape route: an aunt who is already ensconsed in the United States, or, as Darling describes it, Destroyedmichyegan. As she enters her teenage years, Darling’s story switches across the Atlantic and becomes one of one of an innocent expatriate struggling to adapt in a land of plenty: again, nothing new, but told with no false notes and a touching simplicity which renders even everyday adjustment more powerful in light of what happened before:
When the microwave says nting, TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting again, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it’s the burritos and the hot dogs. Eat eat eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home.
I have one issue with the book. I’m a huge fan of interlinked short stories which add up to a novel-whole: the most obvious example being Jamil Ahmad’s utterly magnificent The Wandering Falcon. But Bulawayo’s book seems caught a little between two stools in that respect: Darling’s life unfurls in eighteen stand-alone chapters, yet as they are almost entirely chronological there doesn’t seem a lot of point: all it really does it break up the natural narrative.
That said, We Need New Names is a very touching book told from the heart by an author whose own journey from Zimbabwe to the United States mainly mirrors that of her subject. And while I’m a little surprised to see it on the Man Booker Prize longlist, I’m also delighted to see it get its due. Like Darling herself, this is a book you really can’t help cheering on from the sidelines.