Monday 24 February 2014

We Need New Names

(February 2014)

Variable quality, this one. The second half is very good. The first, however, is outstanding.
This difference is, I think, an unavoidable consequence of the author’s ability to perfectly project her protagonist’s voice. We Need New Names is narrated by a girl called Darling, first as a child growing up in a Zimbabwean shanty town called Paradise, and then as a teenage member of America’s sprawling immigrant underclass. There’s no real plot to speak of, it’s more of a series of progressing vignettes, and what that means is there’s practically no narrative drive at all and everything depends on the characterization making the reader want to continue.

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.


  1. Whenever I see one of your post titles pop up in my blog-feed, I usually guess correctly whether it's a book review or not. This time, I guessed incorrectly... I'll admit that I don't read a lot of fiction, especially fantasy; Mostly, I've got my head in textbooks or history books. You've convinced me on this book; I've added it to my 'maybe' list. I call it a 'maybe' list because every time I'm convinced I want to read something and set my mind to getting my hands on a copy, there's always a hiccup along the way and I give up too easily...

    1. Yeah, I've got a 'maybe' list too that I like to play fast and loose with. The kindle and daily offers haven't help my discipline in that regard.

      This is definitely worth getting, and I'd be interested in an opinion on the American section from an actual flesh and blood 'Merican. Can't escape the nagging feeling that maybe I'm falling slightly for an exoticism double punch. Wonderful writing either way, though.

  2. I love books that make you hold your breath. There's nothing better than catching yourself doing it and realizing that another person who you will likely never meet did it with their imagination and words. I'll probably end up reading this because of the Nao shout out, but also because it sounds important to read.

    1. I'd recommend it. Notthing else quite lives up to that chapter, but the rest is still very good. Given that she emigrates to America I think your experience of the second half might be a little different than mine, though better or worse I couldn't say.