Book review: We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo

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When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky,” NoViolet Bulawayo writes in her deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel, which was longlisted last month for the Man Booker Prize.

We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo

Chatto & Windus, 304pp, £14.99

“They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.”

The place they are leaving, in this case, is Zimbabwe, that African nation brutalized by more than 30 years of Mugabe’s autocratic rule – a country reeling from unemployment, hunger, inflation, AIDS, and the torture and violent intimidation of all political opposition. The place many of them are hoping to flee to is the United States – the destination of the young narrator, Darling, who will begin a new life there with her aunt.

Darling is ten when we first meet her, and the voice Bulawayo has fashioned for her is utterly distinctive – by turns unsparing and lyrical, unsentimental and poetic, spiky and meditative. It is the voice, early on, of a child – observant, sceptical and hard-hearted in the way children can be. She pinches a sick baby she does not want to hold in church so that he will cry and she can hand him back to his mother, and she is coldly standoffish when her long-absent father returns home from South Africa, having become sick with AIDS.

Darling processes the misfortunes of Zimbabwe and its politics through the eyes of a child – talk of elections and hopes of change are something grown-ups engage in; she and her friends are more concerned with filling their empty stomachs with stolen guavas and inventing games to pass the time. School belongs to the time Before – before the police came and bulldozed their houses, before they were all forced to move into tin shacks, before their fathers lost their jobs and life changed.

Using her gift for pictorial language, Bulawayo gives us snapshots of Zimbabwe that have the indelible colour and intensity of a folk art painting. There is desperation here, however. As it becomes clear that elections have failed to bring about any kind of change, as men leave home in search of work and families fracture, young and old alike dream of escape – to America or Europe, or failing that, South Africa, or maybe Dubai or Botswana, someplace where “at least life is better” than in this “terrible place of hunger and things falling apart.”

Thanks to her aunt, who lives in “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan), Darling does make it to the US. At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices and by the silent mystery of snow.

Once she is a teenager, she quickly adopts the habits of friends, even if she doesn’t exactly care for them – listening to Rihanna, trying on armfuls of clothing at the mall and watching pornography online. She acquires an American accent, gets As in school but resists her aunt’s efforts to goad her into a career in medicine.

Darling promises her mother that she will go home for a visit soon, even though she knows she won’t because she doesn’t have the proper paperwork to return to America again. She misses the friends she grew up with, but at the same time feels estranged from them. One of them tells her she can’t refer to Zimbabwe as her country any more, since she treated it as a burning house and ran away instead of trying to put out the flames.

Bulawayo gives us a sense of Darling’s new life in staccato takes that show us both her immersion in and her alienation from American culture. We come to understand how stranded she often feels and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America.

We hear her anger at white liberals who speak patronisingly about the troubles of “Africa,” lumping together all the countries as though they were interchangeable parts of one big mess, and her depiction of the harshness of the immigrant experience, as they take menial jobs or find their hopes frustrated, has the deep ring of truth.