‘We Need New Names’, the debut novel from author NoViolet Bulawayo, is split into two distinct halves.
In the first section, Darling is growing up in a shanty town in Zimbabwe, playing with her friends on the hot streets and eating guavas. Each chapter takes us through a different aspect of living in Zimbabwe at the time – from the violence or political oppression to religion or AIDS – taking us through the history of the country to how Darling now sees it today, through a child’s eyes. This innocence and the matter of fact style in which Darling recounts events is particularly harrowing – in particular some of the games the children invent and their horrific attempt to abort a child pregnancy.
But even though the author takes us through some of the worst sides of Zimbabwe’s history, there is still a vibrancy to her writing and a really strong sense of culture comes through. The children accept their lives and see the world around them in a way that their parents can’t. They might dream of leaving and going to America, or other developed countries, but even though they have very little, their community is supportive and bound together by strong family and cultural values.
Other reviewers have commented that the second section of the book, which takes place in America, isn’t as strong as the first section. While it’s definitely true that the parts of this novel set in Africa is more vibrant and colourful, I think that the second half has its own merits.
There’s a strong focus on identity, displacement and what it means to be growing up in a country that is not your own. The author paints a vivid picture of a whole generation of people leaving behind their families, their history, their culture and their language to assimilate with a new life in a new country, always feeling like they don’t quite belong.
They give their children new names to help them fit in and send them to school, encouraging them to make the most of every opportunity – whilst struggling with the fact that these children grow up without knowing about the culture, tradition and folklore that means so much to their parents. They are outsiders, fighting to gain a new culture, language and country at the price of their own.
All in all, I felt this novel was incredibly hard hitting, and in some places desperately sad. It did feel like the author was trying slightly too hard to draw our attention to all of the hardships and pain faced by her central characters, without giving much light relief to offset it. As a result, I felt like it became a little voyeuristic, making for uncomfortable reading in some places.
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