We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Of course we should never judge a book by its cover, and yet this cover is so bright and attractive I was drawn to it in a way I wouldn’t have been if it had been one of those beige books. I’m glad to say the novel inside is as vibrant and fresh as the cover suggests.

This is the story of Darling, ten years old and living in Paradise, a place which is anything but. She has friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stino. They play together, hunt for guavas in the richer area of Budapest, and talk about escaping their shanty town. Always hungry, no longer at school, with the adults around them struggling under a regime that has robbed them of  money, jobs and homes, Darling and her friends nonetheless fizz with energy and fun. People have to leave Paradise to earn money, Darling’s dad included, although he sends nothing back. Then one day he returns home to die. Chipo is pregnant at 11, the result of rape. All the while the sun burns down and the hunger gnaws. Bulawayo is brilliant at describing this and the necessary bravado these children employ.

“I used to be very afraid of graveyards and death and such things, but not anymore. There is just no sense being afraid when you live so near the graves; it would be like the tongue fearing the teeth.”

Darling tells her friends her Aunt will be taking her to America, but when Aunt Fostalina actually does, everything reverses. Sometimes it feels a little obvious – Darling is surrounded by food, but the abundance of food means that people obsess about what to eat and over exercise or starve themselves to be thin enough. Snow falls and Darling is colder than she ever imagined possible and longs for the warmth of Paradise. Darling can never return to Zimbabwe because she has no official papers and becomes consumed by a yearning for home and an insurmountable sense of displacement. She belongs nowhere.

“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped.”

Bulawayo highlights how (some) Americans presume Africa is one country and that all parts are the same;

“Oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

Her portrayal of (some) Americans as being obese, porn watching and ignorant is possibly equally unsubtle. What makes all this work so well is the verve of Bulawayo’s language, and the humour that lightens the terrible darkness. The beginning of the novel was originally a short story – “Hitting Budapest” and it propels the reader into another world with wit and speed.

In the last chapter “Writing On The Wall” some of Darling’s original energy reappears, but when she talks to Chipo via Skype, and Chipo lectures her on leaving, it sounded as if perhaps this is the author’s voice, lecturing herself. Darling is an interesting character, I’d love to know what happens to her next, and I’d dare to wish her an almost happy ending, though I’m not sure Bulawayo would think one possible.