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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

book cover of We Need New Names

This is an incredibly frustrating book; it has so much it wants to say, and even some moving sections, and yet so much of it is so boring and so laborious and it never devotes enough time to the myriad topics it brings up so you end up thinking to yourself, “What the fuck, all of this at the same school?! What is this, Degrassi High???” which is not really a good comparison because that’s a Canadian show and this is all about ~*~America~*~. Still, it’s like Bulawayo made a list of every single social issue in Zimbabwe and the United States and decided to cram them all into one book, narrated by one young character, Darling. It comes across as implausible, so much so that it really ends up just as eye-rolling as Degrassi.

And it’s so infuriating because as I said this novel has some really good parts, parts that make you know it could have been so much better. The good news is that the best parts have nothing to do with the plot of the novel, not referencing the characters at all, so they can be (and should be) read in isolation: chapters 10 and 16 are beautiful and poetic, on the theme of the exodus from Zimbabwe and the hardships of life abroad. There’s also some good stuff in the other chapters, but they’re all mixed up with less good stuff, so you can’t look at them in isolation the same way.

The other aspect to this book I liked was the way Darling’s voice changed over time. At the beginning of the novel she’s a ten-year-old kid living in a Zimbabwean slum after the demolition of her “real home”; by the end she’s a teenage indocumentada in Michigan, and has lost all the vibrancy and enthusiasm with which she began her story. It’s a subtle progression, and very well done.

It’s too bad these things were let down by other aspects of the book. Each chapter is more or less a self-contained story, so you have bizarre things like Darling’s father returning from South Africa, dying of AIDS, then never getting mentioned again once his chapter is over. The first half of the book (before chapter 10, the brilliant bridge) follows her life in Zimbabwe, the second half her life in America. Each is characterised by spending long periods of time describing very mundane, boring things in agonising detail, bringing up a very weighty issue and not giving anywhere near enough time to developing it, then returning to mundanity, over and over again. In the “America” half, there is also a kind of revolting chapter where Darling and her friends watch porn including a snuff film and that has to be described, but then in the middle of this revolting chapter is an important and powerful section where Darling ruminates on how hard she finds it to keep in touch with her friends back home… I really liked that section, but why did it have to be bookended with the gross porn descriptions?

Hopefully I’ve conveyed my frustration enough. This has potential, but it’s squandered and I came away disappointed. Some of the reviews of this book, where people have taken the ideas presented here and run with them, I liked much better than the book itself. It has at least increased the urgency in my mind of reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as it’s yet another book that makes extensive reference to that.

★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.