Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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NoViolet Bulawayo is 31-year-old Elizabeth Tshele who left Zimbabwe for America at the age of 18.  She is currently based at Stanford University in California.  We Need New Names was recently short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  Published by Chatto & Windus.  E-book available.

Life happens – life explodes; it kaleidoscopes in chaos; it goes Zimbabwe.  How do we talk about this?  How do we absorb the shock, deal with the loneliness?  Most of us can’t – our voices shrivel up in dark cupboards.

Not so NoViolet Bulawayo.  She tells the story of Zimbabwe’s recent collapse through the eyes of a child.  She tells it from the inside out – not the skin of things but the passion of them.

We Need New Names flings itself into grimy corners.  It drags secrets into sunlight.  It rips opens consequences and pokes the inquisitive fingers of childhood into horror and posturing.  The book is exhilarating and raw.

We start in Zimbabwe with friends and games amongst the rubble of lives spoiled.  It’s the ten-year-old Darling who spins us through the scenes.   She and her gang are school-free, hungry and bored.  They take us where we don’t want to go but the view is compelling and so direct is our lens that the urge to yell out, to warn is almost too urgent to resist.

“Today we are getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all.  One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die.”

We’re trapped, watching, as the girls prepare to carry out an abortion on their eleven-year-old friend.  The dialogue is childish and breath-ripping, holding us down and then, just as suddenly, moving us on in the hunt for food and new games.

We’re shown, often from the branches of guava trees, Zimbabwe as it unravels.  There are evictions, church services, charity, and the Chinese.  We meet AIDS, loss and absence, and we dream of America.

It’s in America that we end up for the second half of the book.  Here the voice is quieter.

“… the problem with those who speak only English is this:  they don’t know how to listen, they are busy listening to your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying.”

The teenage Darling is still observant and unflinching but she is no longer dirt red.  That vivid voice is trapped in Zimbabwe where it stamps and insists between shock and play.

” … what is rage when it is kept in like a heart, like blood, when you do not do anything with it, when you do not use it to hit or even yell?  Such rage is nothing, it does not count.  It is just a big, terrible dog with no teeth.”

In the final pages NoViolet takes us back to childhood and Mzilikazi Road.  The young Darling and her friends play ‘hunt bin Laden’ until there’s an accident involving a dog and a bread lorry.  The squashed dog is observed but it is “the delicious, delicious smell of bread”, of want, that lingers.

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