BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names“We are on our way to Budapest,” 10-year-old Darling announces as NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2013 Booker longlisted debut novel opens. ‘We’ includes “Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina,” banded together with plans to steal guavas as they sneak out of Paradise, the ironically named shantytown home the children refer to as a “kaka toilet.” In spite of warnings, the children regularly, longingly, venture to London, Los Angeles, Paris, in addition to Budapest – all the nearby wealthy neighborhoods where they will never be welcomed. Already Darling is determined she will be “blazing out of this kaka country” – Zimbabwe, although never named, where Bulawayo was born and raised.

Darling comes of age living with her grandmother (who still keeps Queen Elizabeth-visaged British money hidden in her Bible under her bed long after only U.S. dollars and South African rands have any buying power), her traveling mother who needs to support three generations of women, and her deadbeat father who unexpectedly returns from South Africa as a barely recognizable near-skeleton. Sundays are spent perspiring on a mountain, where “that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington MBorro” one week climbs on top of a screaming woman to exorcise her demons, and Chipo – silenced by her mysterious pregnancy at age 11 – reclaims her voice to reveal she was raped by her grandfather.

Before Chipo’s baby is born, countrywide violence will send Darling to the other side of the world. Degraded by colonial legacy and trapped in murderous unrest, survival means escape: “Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps.” Darling is one of the lucky few who has an Aunt Fostalina who arrives to take her away, seemingly to safety as her grandmother laments the “ruin” of their country. Even as she is buffered by new family and friends, Darling’s immigrant rebirth comes at a high price: “They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are …”

Labeled “A Novel” on the cover, Bulawayo’s chapters read more like short stories that could easily stand alone. The result is effectively jarring, creating a sense of disconnect that jumps from story to story, as if echoing Darling’s disjointed coming-of age – her African childhood defined by inequity and horror, and the subsequent adaptations she must make as a stranger in a strange land. Stuck in the ears, narrator Robin Miles imbues Darling’s journey with resonating tension, regret, and hope.

The Booker shortlist debuts in a couple of weeks, on September 10, when this year’s “Booker dozen” of 13 will drop to five or six titles. I’m betting Names will stay in the running … at least until October 15 when Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland will remain the last one standing. Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013


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