We Need New Names, Noviolet Bulawayo

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Bit slow on posting this one but here is my review of Noviolet Bulawayo’s Booker prize nominated ‘We Need New Names’ (WNNN)

Once again, the decision to read this book came from an instant reaction to the cover. How can you not be intrigued by something so vibrant and bold? I’m really not so sure that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover these days, I won’t pick up a book if the cover doesn’t speak to me in some way and I’m not often disappointed.

Reading WNNN after ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ created an interesting point of comparison between young teens in an exciting mixture of cultures. There were unmistakable similarities between the books, each being narrated by a troubled young girl: Nao in ATFTTB & Darling in WNNN, each struggling to adapt to life in a culture completely unlike the one they were raised in.

The first half of the book, set in the ironically named ‘Paradise’ is arguably more striking than the second where Darling is ‘evacuated’ to live with her Aunt in America.
In Paradise we follow 10 year old Darling and friends during their usual routines of guava scavenging and general mischief-making; with names such as Bastard and Godknows, you know they’re going to be little characters and they are a delight to follow. That is, until things turn dark, and they do so frequently. Bulawayo cleverly sweeps away moments of intense darkness and extreme violent behaviour almost immediately after the event, as though they were of no consequence whatsoever. Much like how a child’s mind works, in that they can forget easily once they’ve been distracted by a lollipop or noisy toy. Except (hopefully) these moments are so much darker than anything a child in this country would be expected to experience. The way Darling & co are able to move on with the click of a finger is emotional and upsetting but fascinating at the same time. Bulawayo does an excellent job of portraying their all too mature resilience, even with a touch of humour.

I don’t often turn over corners in books but I did so in this one, a lot. I love learning about African culture and Darling taught me a great deal. This passage in particular caught me off guard and caused me to think of immigration from an entirely new perspective.

“When we die, our children will not know how to wail, how to mourn us right away. They will not go mad with grief, they will not pin black cloth on their arms, they will not spill beer and tobacco on the earth, they will not sing until their voices are hoarse. They will not put our plates and cups on our graves; they will not send us away with mphafa trees. We will leave for the land of the dead naked, without the things we need to enter the castle of our ancestors. Because we will not be proper, the spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we will wait and wait and wait-forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries” p250.

I mean how could you fail to be moved by that?

Not a lot happens plot-wise in this book but it doesn’t need to, like the best acted film-dramas the characters and environment can hold your interest for hours. I’ve already expressed on numerous occasions my adoration for novels set in Africa and WNNN has only further confirmed this.

I’m afraid this is where my Man Booker journey must end for 2013, I have already been distracted by an array of other pretty covers like some great fat magpie and to be honest, I just don’t have the arm strength for The Luminaries.

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