We Need New Names

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is actually a very very good book. I gave it 4 stars on
Goodreads, which for me means I really liked it. I’m curious, actually, about how people interpret the Goodreads star rating. For me it works as follows:
4 stars: This book is an excellent book
3 stars: This book is a good book. I liked it.
2 stars: I am indifferent towards this book. It was okay.
1 star: Do not like.

Anyway, the point is, I gave We Need New Names 4 of those pretty red stars. So, that says a lot.

Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains.

It’s a story about Darling and 5 of her friends growing up in an African country I assume to be Zimbabwe although this is never explicitly stated. The six children dream of escaping the hell that is their life, a shanty town called Paradise where they sneak into the streets of the rich and gorge themselves on guavas, so hungry they don’t even care that the fruit will make them ill. The stories are terrible. Darling’s friend Chipo (aged ten) is pregnant with a baby we are led to believe is her grandfather’s; Darling’s father is dying of AIDS – the children call it ‘the sickness.’ It feels sometimes like every turn of the page brings with it another terror, another heartbreak, another image of a nation on its knees. It pulls no punches, but, and here is the sheer genius of this book, even the most horrifying scenes are told through the eyes of a child, with defiance and a certain matter-of-factness that comes of knowing little else, with mischievousness and humour. You’re reading and there are paragraphs that rip out your heart and then you’re smiling, or you’re rolling your eyes and it never becomes the kind of depressing that makes you want to stop reading. There is no sensationalism here: Darling is too immersed in her life to describe it in any other way than ‘this is how it is, so there’s no judgement, no opinion, no cry for sympathy and it makes a difficult subject somewhat easier to read about at the same time as being weirdly haunting. It also makes you fall head over heels in love with these kids.

Darling’s life in Paradise is hell. She finally makes it out, goes to live with her Aunt in ‘destroyedmichygen USA’ and finds that the land of Barack Obama and plentiful food is an entirely different kind of hard. It’s hard to adjust and hard to fit in, and hard to go from that to this, and despite it all, Darling misses home. She wants to go home but she doesn’t know where home is anymore, and suddenly America doesn’t feel so much like the land of the free she;s spent a lifetime dreaming it would be. It’s a different world and Darling doesn’t know how to fit in, and she doesn’t know how to understand it. Darling makes new friends, and together they work their way alphabetically through porn videos on the internet and steal someone’s mother’s car to go driving and it’s so different from the shenanigans of paradise and yet at the same time so similar, and there throughout it all is Darling’s commentary. Watching her assess this Brave New World is like a sucker-punch sometimes, it’s that good and that powerful:

We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything, I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the fucking Sudan.

There’s another scene with a teenage girl on a diet, putting 5 raisins on a plate for lunch. Darling’s response takes the air from your lungs. You have a fridge bloated with food so no matter how much you starve yourself, you’ll never know real, true hunger she says. Well fuck. Ain’t that just the truth. & we waste food and it’s almost a cliché isn’t it. There are children starving in Africa people say when you can’t finish your sandwich and we don’t even think about it. Ten chapters ago Darling was so hungry she ate guavas til she was too constipated too eat any more and now there’s a rich American girl with a fridge full of food, starving herself. It’s intense and it’s incredibly real, the pictures painted for you when you read this book are absolutely crystal clear.

You feel for Darling the whole way through but more so somehow at the end, when she is sort of untethered, she has no ‘place’ – she is absolutely not and will likely never be an American, but she’s so far removed from who she thought she was and who she used to be too. She’s not an American but she’s too far away, now, to be able to really feel the suffering of the country she left behind. Near the start of the book one of her friends tells her that you always have to be able to go back to where you came from. I think Darling spent the second half of this book thinking that she could, and then she talks to Chipo, a mother herself now to a daughter she called Darling. Chipo sees it differently: You left it, Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country? 

This, dear friends, has been a recommendation.