Review: We Need New Names

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Review for “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I liked the first half of this book. The language is rich, the characters realistic, and the main character’s voice soars off of the page. The novel is set in Zimbabwe in the late 90’s, where we first meet Darling, a likeable, whip-smart young girl living in an ironically named shantytown called Paradise along with her interestingly named friends (Bastard, Sbho, Chipo, and Godknows). Bulawayo does not give us a pretty picture of Paradise, however. There is crippling poverty, daily starvation (with Darling and her friends stealing fruit from trees to survive), the government’s systematic destruction of what little homes Darling and her neighbors have, and one of her 11-year-old friends is pregnant (presumably from a rape by a family member). Despite the bleak landscape of the novel I loved the fact that Bulawayo chose to portray her child narrator with equal parts of innocence and resiliency. There was a fair share of times within the book where I found myself laughing out loud at Darling’s observations–a trip to church with her grandmother, as well as her account of NGO workers, who take pictures of them and give them “loads of things they don’t need.” It’s a harsh world, but a beautiful one in which the children dreamingly drift away their days without school, playing games and eating fruit.

About mid-way through the book Darling immigrates to America. Here, though, her voice becomes disconnected from the rest of the narrative. While I imagine that a certain degree of this is intentional (Bulawayo is mirroring the voicelessness of the immigrant experience), it is not particularly interesting to read. The first part of the book crackled with energy, and it was such a let-down to read the second half–mostly, Darling’s blandly prescribed accounts of fat Americans, the appearance of snow, going to the mall, and watching porn with her friends.

I wouldn’t advise people not to read this book. Bulawayo does not waste words, each chapter was strong enough to stand as a short story on its own. Bulawayo is a good writer, and I loved the solidness of her prose. I look forward to her further writing in the future, she is definitely one to watch.

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