We Need New Names – book review

Today for Fiction Friday I’m doing a book review on the novel We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. I read it as part of Around The World reading challenge, where you read a book from each continent. This one’s from Africa, Zimbabwe to be exact.

I presume that the book is loosely autobiographical. NoViolet lived her early years in Zimbabwe and moved to Michigan when she was eleven years old, just like Darling, the protagonist of this novel.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first part details Darling’s childhood in her home country in Africa. She and her family (or what’s left of it) live in a shanty. They were driven out of their house for reasons, which are not clear (realistically, as they would not have been clear to a little girl like Darling) and now have to live in destitute conditions. All their neighbors and friends have suffered a similar fate. The children are not safe enough, fed enough, or even loved enough most of the time. Their loved ones disappear or have to leave for other countries. They have to witness death and cruelty.

But they do have something special in the midst of all that poverty. They have each other. Darling has several good friends, with whom she spends all her days and shares all her joys and sorrows. Their life is a constant adventure. So when we get to part two, where Darling finally achieves her dream and joins her aunt in America, she loses an important part of herself.

And this loss is at the heart of this novel. Darling finds new friends, and grows apart from her friends in Africa On the surface everything is all right. But she mourns the loss of her friends and everything familiar. Life in America is mostly easy and predictable. At the same time going out at night is forbidden since Darling lives in a poor neighborhood where crime abounds. People do not support each other the same way they do in Africa. Everybody suffers his or her own sorrows privately. And while Darling is happy to live in a place where she has enough food, good clothes, and a warm, comfortable house to live in, she inevitably feels like a part of her has been lost, and can never be retrieved. She can never visit her home country, since she has no visa and if she leaves, she won’t be able to return. She is made to choose between being safe, and her own culture and family; everything that she knows and loves.

I liked this novel, it was well written. Darling’s voice came across well and she observes the terrible phenomena around her with a credible combination of naïvety and perspicacity. At the same time there was something slightly jarring about the novel to me. Perhaps the fact that it corresponded so well to several stereotypes that I have about life in Africa. I expected those stereotypes to be broken when I started reading this book, and instead they were confirmed. That is quite possibly because they are true, but it left me feeling a little like I was reading a pamphlet instead of a novel.

I enjoyed the depiction of the friendship between Darling and her friends. I would have yearned for slightly fewer stereotypical situations, the ones about which we’ve all read in the newspapers. There is AIDS, there is teen pregnancy, there is gang violence. It seems stupid to say this, since this book is probably a realistic depiction of what life is really like out there, but fiction should probably not be this realistic. Fiction should surprise and break stereotypes, not uphold them. That would be even more powerful.

The plight of African children is terrible. I don’t want to minimize that at all. If anything, it should be discussed more, not less. This book does a good job at it, but for me it would have been more effective with just a little less predictability. A little more story line. This book doesn’t have a particularly strong plot, which is very realistic but not necessarily as gripping as novels that I enjoy best.

But that’s just my take. Read the book and judge for yourself. It’s definitely worth a read.

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