Variable quality, this one. The second half is very good. The first, however, is outstanding.
Fortunately Bulawayo gives the young Darling one of the most captivating voices I’ve read in a long time (certainly not since Nao in A Tale for the Time Being), with a beautiful dialectical lyricism and a truly heartbreaking strain of world-weary naivety. Darling runs with a group of kids (with glorious names such as Godknows, Sbho, and Bastard) who bear witness to some of the most appalling facets of humanity; be they incestuous rape, mob violence, relatives dying of AIDS, or the misplaced, patronizing, and ineffective attention of western media and NGOs. But, being kids, somehow they bounce through all this and turn it into games, the import of which you’re never sure if they fully appreciate; I can’t ever recall holding my breath as I get to the end of scene during a book before, yet the chapter in which these children make a game of the murderous beating of a political activist (read that again) must count as one of the most perfectly balanced moments of tension and emotion I’ve ever read. In a single chapter Bulawayo takes Lord of the Flies, shakes it five ways to hell and back, and leaves you spent, shattered, crying, and somehow hopeful at the close.
It would be a huge task for any writer to maintain this level over an entire novel, and the fact that this doesn’t happen here isn’t a failing. Halfway through Darling achieves her ambition and joins her aunt in America (abusing her tourist visa to the full). From here on her voice changes to one that is entirely in keeping with her journey and the themes of the book: the inevitable conformity and anonymity of the barely tolerated labourer underclass existing on the bottom rung throughout the west. It’s a noticeably less compelling voice however, as Darling loses her innocence (oh the irony) and with it a good deal of the poetry that made that made her younger self so remarkable. It’s an effective and very well handled manner of signaling these changes, but it’s noticeable that the most beautiful writing in the second half comes in the delirious flashback of an elderly Zulu in a retirement hope.
It is, of course, possible that I’m falling prey slightly to the ‘poverty tourism’ those western interlopers stand accused of in the first half of the book. Maybe the second half doesn’t seem as good simply because it concerns a situation I’m more familiar with, however vicariously. I’ve just enough residual white liberal guilt not to rule that out entirely, but I obviously can’t say for sure. Either way, after the first five chapters I was recommending this to everyone I know, and even if the rest doesn’t quite match up to that it’s still an awesome book and there’s no way I would retract that.