We Need New Names (2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo


“We can see, in the eyes of the adults, the rage. It is quiet but it is there. Still, what is rage when it is kept in like a heart, like blood, when you do not do anything with it, when you do not use it to hit or even yell? Such rage is nothing, it does not count. It is just a big, terrible dog with no teeth.”

Hello all and apologies for the long hiatus. I had so many reading and blogging plans for the past few weeks but they all shot out the window as the chaos of changing jobs set in. It’s now been three weeks and I’m slowly forming a vague new routine but things might remain a little sluggish round here while I work out how to squeeze in regular times for the things I enjoy. In the meantime I thought I’d herald my return to the blogosphere with a very quick review of NoViolet Bulawayo’s book We Need New Names, which makes Zimbabwe the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour.

We Need New Names is narrated by Darling, a precocious 10 year old living in a shanty town called Paradise. School has been closed so these days she spends her time with her friends, stealing guavas, playing at finding Bin Laden and trying to avoid being dragged to church to hear the rantings of the Reverend Revelations Bitchington Mborro. It’s a far from idyllic life – in fact her circumstances are frequently brutal – but Darling is in her own way happy. These are times of upheaval for Zimbabwe though and occasionally the outside world impinges on her fun. In one memorable scene the children hide in a tree as an angry mob storm the house of a rich white couple with machetes chanting ‘Africa for Africans!’ In another they play at re-enacting the murder of a family friend by the police. These scenes have an innocent, macabre horror to them, which make them doubly unsettling. You’re seeing these events unfold through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand the implications of what she’s seeing.

Eventually, Darling’s mother makes the awful decision to send her daughter away to America for her safety. Bulawayo prefaces the move with a couple of pages thinking over how gut-wrenchingly difficult this must be for those forced to leave behind their families and homes in the hopes of a better life elsewhere. It’s rather unwieldy, the way she does this, but it’s kind of touching all the same.

“Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.”

From hereon the reader follows Darling in her new life as she discovers the realities of life as an immigrant in the west. There’s the good stuff – the junk food and the internet and the shopping malls – but it’s blindingly obvious that there are precious few real opportunities for someone like Darling in America.

I enjoyed the first half of this novel enormously, almost entirely because of Darling’s down to earth, dry tone of narration. Somewhere in the second half, however, it all went wrong and I can only blame this partly on the book; it was at about this time that I changed jobs and had to put the book down for a week. When normal reading resumed I found it much less interesting, much less clever than I’d remembered. Did I lose my way with the book? Or did it go astray without me? Had it always been this disjointed? I’m really not sure. I can only say that I found the second half a little flat.  I can convince myself that this was deliberate, that Bulawayo wanted to provide a stark contrast between the old life and the new, but in reality I just missed the drama and the colour of the preceding chapters. And worst of all, I missed the old Darling. The innocence and humour seemed to have disappeared too abruptly and I was left feeling decidedly underwhelmed.

Since finishing reading I’ve read several reviews describing We Need New Names as a sort of Eye Spy book of African ‘issues’, from AIDS to FGM, government corruption to child poverty. I agree that Bulwayo’s themes aren’t particularly new, and that her points aren’t generally very well made, but it seems a tad unfair to blame her for referencing some very real problems. I’m slightly baffled by this criticism.

Anyhoo, that’s enough nonsense from me for one night. P has gone out for the evening so if I don’t get to bed soon I’ll lose my one opportunity this week for a night in with a book. How rock’n’roll.

5 thoughts on “We Need New Names (2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo

  1. It’s weird when that happens with books, isn’t it? I had a similar disconnected experience with a book recently and still can’t figure out whether it was my frame of mind or the book! Anyway, glad to see you back in blogland and good luck with the new job! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Our Mutual Friend and finding time to read… | the blue bore

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