Review of We need new names by Noviolet Bulawayo

When I first created this blog I wanted it to be about life, politics and literature. I have posted political posts before and as such the literature aspect has been neglected. I have therefore decided to post to this blog, my annotated bibliography which I hope to use for further studies (I.e doctoral studies). I had written a blog entry on John Eppel’s Absent the English teacher but unfortunately my laptop was stolen before I could upload it. Since the memory of that text is no longer fresh in my mind, I won’t bother reviewing it. Doing so, I feel, would be an injustice. Instead, I am going to review a book which I have just read which is Noviolet Bulawayo’s We need new names.

The book is the story of a little girl by the name of Darling. Darling lives in a squatter camp in Bulawayo. The story is set during the tumultuous period of the late 2000s in Zimbabwe. Hunger, disease and death are common and so are food shortages political unrest and exile. Darling narrates her experiences of shanty life from the perspective of an innocent child. These experiences are always in the presence of her gang of friends. She dreams of going to America where her aunt is. America is viewed by the protagonist as an oasis of abundance and prosperity. Darling is eventually taken to America by her aunt Fostalina. When Darling gets to America she is surprised at what she finds. The reality she faces is not what she expected. Questions of first world excess and the materialistic nature of the west are asked. Also the longing for home and the feelings of leaving behind family and friends are a constant burden for Darling in the new world.

I started reading this book immediately after finishing Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare. The first thing you will notice if you have the edition I used is that We need new names won a few literary awards. Why this is the case, I have no idea. I do not think it is THAT good. I was so put off by this book that I spent 3 weeks suffering through it. The only reason I kept going is because I have a master’s degree in African literature and I could not live with shame of not being able to finish a novel. The first thing that struck me is how slow the narrative starts. This was especially evident for me because I was comparing this novel to The Hairdresser of Harare which has a fast paced narrative. I also feel that the narration by the protagonist was boring and mundane. Now, I understand that the author has to be realistic. She has to copy the way in which an ordinary primary school child would speak so that the story is believable. But, that does not mean the narrative has to be boring. Bulawayo failed to tap into the wonderful opportunity that the viewpoint of a child offers. A child’s viewpoint can be simple but incisive and entertaining. Bulawayo fails to fully develop the child narrator in the same way as V.S Naipaul does in Miguel Street for example.

For me the novel is divided into two discernible parts. The first part of the novel focuses on Darling’s life in Paradise, Bulawayo. The second part focuses on life in America. The parts of the book that focus on life in America are definitely the most interesting parts of the book. The narrator has evolved into an adolescent experimenting with alcohol, porn and sexuality. Also, the grim reality of America and the comparisons to life in Zimbabwe are quite thought provoking.

Basing on the author description on one of the first few pages, this novel seems to be semi-autobiographical. There are a lot of similarities between Noviolet and Darling. They both leave Zimbabwe to go and study in Michigan. They both live in Kalamazoo. They both are women. They both have strong links to Cornell University. None the less it is a decent effort for a first time writer who holds an MFA degree from Cornell University.  Although I did not like this novel I will award it 3 stars out of 10.

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