Wednesday, October 30, 2013

We need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawyo's debut novel landed her on the short list of finalists for the 2013 Man Booker prize.  It also landed on the list for consideration for the 2013 Maine Readers Choice award. We Need New Names is a fictional account that has large elements of autobiography.  Told in the first person of a young girl named  Darling whose wonderful assortment of family and friends in her native Zimbabwe include Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, and her grandma Mother of Bones.  The preacher, Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, proclaims from the top of a steep climb his flock must endure every sabbath before they can enjoy (or endure?) his prosyletizing posturing.  She paints a very realistic picture of life in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and the pain the birth pangs of revolution imparted to everyday citizens: the hunger, the lack of privacy, lack of sanitation and education opportunities, and the disappearance of male family members who leave to go to work in the gold mines, often to return bringing no money but "the sickness" instead.

In the second part of the story, Darling manages to go to America where an aunt has agreed to sponsor her for a student visa in Detroit.  Her description of her first experience of snow is just one example of her exquisite descriptive abilities.  A sample from the chapter DestroyedMichygen:
What you will see if you come here (America) the snow. Snow on the leafless trees, snow on the cars, snow on the roads, snow on the yards, snow on the roofs---snow, just snow covering everything like sand. It is as white as clean teeth, and is also, very, very cold.  It is a greedy monster too, the snow, because just look how it has swallowed everything;  where is the ground now? Where are the flowers? The grass? The stones?  The leaves? The ants?...As for the coldness, I have never seen it like this. I mean coldness that makes like it wants to kill you, like it's telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from. p.150
Is this one compelling enough to advance it to the next round? Maybe. It is certainly IMHO a compelling read, one that grabbed me and held me. In the end, it will depend on whether others are equally or more compelling. Ms. Bulawayo certainly deserves a good hard look.  I was grabbed, repulsed, horrified, entranced, amused and immersed from the beginning to the end. Did I like the subject matter? NO. Did I like the characters - not particularly, but neither did I dislike them.  Some are actually eccentric enough to be loveable.  This is a coming of age story that tells us not just the discouragements of her birthplace, but her disappointments when expectations of America don't quite fit her mind's picture.  As such, the brutality fits the realism of Darling's life.

Another note.  I also listened to large portions of this in audio format.  Narrator Robin Miles' melodic rendition of the dialect and names greatly enhanced my enjoyment of this story.  This is definitely an author to look for in the future. Many thanks to Reagan Arthur/Little Brown for making this review copy available.

Title: We Need New Names
Author: NoViolet Bulawayo (
Audio Version Narrator: Robin Miles 
Publisher: Little Brown & Company, New York, 292 pages
Genre: literary fiction
Subject: coming of age in Zimbabwe
Setting: Zimbabwe, Detroit Michigan
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's on the long-long list for the MRCA.


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