We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

CoverThe first part of the book is the rawest, most physical description of childhood in present day Zimbabwe. It’s honesty is a sharp as a dagger. It’s much more visceral than Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions which recounts childhood during the era of white minority rule. Despite its in-your-face descriptions of poverty, it also captures childhood in ways few writers can. Garry Trudeau, in his introduction to a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon collection, pointed out that most writers who feature children, feature them as wise-cracking mini adults. NoViolet Bulawayo doesn’t do that. Darling, Bastard, Stina and their friends are real kids with the innocence and the latent brutality kids everywhere exhibit. If the book had just consisted of this part, I would have given it five stars.

The second part describes Darling’s journey and life in the US. Here the narrative falls into the well trodden pathways of other coming-to-the-US novels, the most recent example of which is Adichie’s Americanah. Initially, it works better than Adichie’s, which sounds more distant, cerebral. Much of it matches my own experience of coming to live in this strange country. But white guys with proper papers don’t face the same circumstances. The story switches from the adventures of Darling in a strange country to a more general mourning of the lost home in Zimbabwe. The pain of having left behind another world and not being able to go back because of a lack of proper papers is palpable in those pages. Unfortunately, the two pieces don’t mesh well, the latter interrupts the former’s narrative flow.

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