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3.9 out of 5 stars
We Need New Names
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
I admit to being somewhat conflicted about my view of this book. Worthy of its shortlisting for the 2013 Booker, I agree, but I'm also rather glad it didn't win. Let me start by getting my criticisms out of the way and then I'll try to explain why I think it's very much worth reading nonetheless.

This is the story of Darling, a young girl living in a shanty town in Zimbabwe. When we first meet her, she is ten and spends most of her time with her little group of friends. Through them, we get a child's-eye view of the devastation that has been wrought on the country during the Mugabe period. At the half-way point, Darling is sent to America to live with her aunt in Michigan, and the second half is taken up with seeing the immigrant experience as Darling learns about this society that is so different from anything she has known.

The problem I have is that it feels a little as if Bulawayo has started by writing down a list of all the bad things we associate with Zimbabwe and then a similar list of all the downsides of the US. The book is episodic with each chapter being a little story on its own, and each story has a 'point'. So we get the chapter on Aids, one on female genital mutilation, then incest and rape, white people being run off their properties, the rigging of elections and the violence that goes along with that, and so on. In America, we get out of control kids, school shootings, porn, obsession with looks and weight, celebrity culture etc. It's a bleak picture of both countries with the over-riding feeling being that the grass isn't as much greener for immigrants as they expected it to be. It all feels a little contrived and amalgamated, and I couldn't help feeling that, firstly, it wasn't telling me much I didn't know and, secondly, that there was an almost exploitative and voyeuristic element to the stringing together of all of these horrors.

However...

The writing is fresh and original and Darling and her friends are brought vividly to life, especially in the Zimbabwean section. With a less than thorough understanding of what's going on around them, they are the observers - the reader is the interpreter. Although there's never enough food to go round (except briefly when the NGOs pay their regular visits) there is a sense of community - a community that is tottering on the point of collapse, yes, but still hanging on to old traditions. Despite all the bad things happening around them, the children seem on the surface to be like children anywhere - breaking rules and taking risks, full of bravado when in their group, dreaming of a better future. Bulawayo very effectively uses the games they play to show the effect that their experiences have had on them - games based on the relative importance of countries with their own country low on the list, games of Find bin Laden; and gradually, as they witness more and more violent and irrational behaviour around them, the games darken too.

I found the American portion of the book patchier in its effectiveness, but Bulawayo gets across very clearly the difficulties of learning to live in a new culture, always speaking in a second language, and the longing for home. She writes very movingly about the people left behind in Zimbabwe, relying on the dollars that the immigrants send home. And she gives a believable and poignant picture of this young girl gradually losing touch with the friends and family back home, unable to explain to them what she is experiencing in the reality of this new world they have dreamed about.

I found Bulawayo's writing style hugely skilful in giving an authenticity to Darling's voice throughout and allowing her language to grow and change as she moves through adolescence. Although I had a problem with the tick-list of horrors, I still found myself moved deeply on several occasions, and in particular by the short chapter at the centre of the book - an interlude between the two sections, where Bulawayo describes the exodus of a generation from her troubled homeland in language so beautiful and evocative it could fairly be described as a prose poem.

So in the end, the quality of the writing and language, together with the emotionalism that Bulawayo achieves without ever allowing mawkishness to creep in, makes this a book that I am glad I have read and highly recommend. 4½ stars for me so rounded up to 5.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 20 November 2013
There is deep pain in this novel yet it races along with a vibrant, joyful energy. The prose has African rhythms. There is detailed observation of people and NoViolet understands what makes them tick but she doesn't always like what they do. She gets great pleasure from her childhood friends and loves them for who they are even when they behave in ways she does not agree with. The duality of the hurt they all suffer in their country with the deep love for the way of life and culture is at the heart of the novel. In her deprived Zimbabwe life, she longs for America and stability. Yet in the second part of the book when she has that safety, she suffers even more pain and feelings of disjuncture. Her African perspective shows up the western life as being much more deprived, despite the material wealth.
The book is also a coming of age novel so some of her feelings of disillusion may be a product of coming to adulthood and having to give up on the dreams of childhood. It is also a novel about identity of a girl/woman and a country. NoViolet feels her identity is fractured by the regime in her homeland, the violence and abuse. Her family is broken by what happens to her father. Then in America she has lost her roots, traditions and her soul and she cannot return. Africa has a raw energy in he novel. It is untamed and connected to ancient ways of being. Mother of Bones does not need anything the NGOs bring. She keeps her dignity and values and history. She has a deep knowledge and a holistic view of life which her own government cannot destroy. The novel does not explain the politics, it plays out the impact on ordinary lives. That way, the writer gives us a deep feel for a way of life, a concern for what has gone on in that regime and a critique of western life. In her colourful and lyrical prose she also gives us hope for the better future that human beings can create.
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59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
We Need New Names is a debut novel and I want to be generous. However, the novel, although only short, seems to drag and become quite repetitive.

Initially set in Zimbabwe in the late 2000s, we meet Darling, a 10 year old girl, and her friends as they run amok in a poor township. The various and well documented issues facing Zimbabwe were paraded forth: food shortages, rigged elections, hyperinflation, poor medical facilities, AIDS, reliance on NGOs, seizure of white farms... Each issue is neatly packaged into a self-contained chapter and it felt somewhat contrived. Added to this, there was little real depth of characterisation, and little development. There was a high point in the hedge priest, a rather ridiculous man called Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro imposing his religious zealotry on a rather bemused population. And there are smiles as the children get up to various hi-jinx, including scrumping guavas. There is a genuinely distressing chapter featuring an improvised abortion, and there are thought provoking moments as we realise that some of the children came from middle class backgrounds and once had aspirations of education and achievement. Zimbabwe, like some other failed states, was not always poor.

Half way through, the novel switches to the US. This section of the novel doesn't work as well. There are some interesting thoughts about displacement and homesickness; the observation that once you leave your homeland you can never really return because the land you leave will change. However, there's a bit too much madness and it all becomes rather confusing. There are some parallels and some contrasts made between life in the US and life in Zimbabwe, but the lack of a real narrative drive means the reader's interest may well wander. Moreover, the voice of Darling is inconsistent over the course of the novel - and I know this is intentional to represent the growing influence of Western life on an African child but it adds to the confusion of the narration. An alternative might have been to narrate the entire novel as a single voice reminiscence, although the counter argument is that the Zim section would lose its immediacy. Hmmm.

It's a pity that the wonderful premise of the novel has not quite been delivered. There is enough to remain hopeful that, with experience, NoViolet Bulawayo will write better books. But in order to do so, she will need to learn that at the heart of great novels of social upheaval - e.g. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Liam O'Flaherty's Famine - there is a story that is intensely personal and character led; the moments of national crisis are simply the backdrop for the real human drama of family relationships.

Overall, a generous three stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I thought this was a brilliant novel; set in recent Zimbabwe, just after the white population have been kicked out, we follow 10 year old Darling and her friends, living in a shanty town, playing games, dreaming of emigrating. When they go scrumping guavas, it's not for fun but to assuage the hunger. Around them are illness, absent relatives working abroad, religion and superstition. Written in a childlike way, yet immensely descriptive : for example, of one man dying of AIDS:
'He is just length and bones. He is rough skin. He is crocodile teeth and egg-white eyes, lying there drowning on the bed.'

Halfway through the book, Darling is sent to live with her aunt in Michigan. Others have criticized the 'jump' from one personality to another, saying that the bright child from Zimbabwe suddenly becomes unlikeable and apathetic. I would disagree with that: firstly Darling and her pals were no angels back home, secondly, she is quite bit older now, and thirdly, she's living in a totally different world and is striving to change herself to fit in.

While we start this novel hoping Darling can get out of her life of poverty and violence, once she does so and is pining for home, for the kids she played with, we wonder if she made the right move. She asks
'how the earth smelled right before it rained...how after the rain, flying ants exploded from the ground like fireworks...Is the City Hall still the same? The Tredgold building?...the jacaranda trees that line the streets in town - do they still bloom that dizzying purple?...We asked the arrivals all these questions and watched them as they spoke; we wanted to put our heads in their mouths to catch every precious word, every feeling.'
Wonderful debut novel
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 June 2014
Amazon.co.uk recommended "We Need New Names" after I showed interest in "African" literature, maninly after I started to buy each and every book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the glorious Americanah. Here, NoViolet Bulawayo spinned out her Caine prize-winning short story about a Zimbabwean girl's childhood and teen years into a short novel.

Adichie spoilt me. I expected rich elaborate language, an array of characters with deep personalities and narrative of a thought-process. I did not get it here. Yes, there is a dead body hanging from a tree; narrator's father is dying of AIDS; there is an exorcism; there is rape and subsequent pregnancy of a 11-year-old girl; there is political violence, there are starving street children; and then there is America, where Darling, guava-fed narrator, escapes for a better life (and it is better with MacBooks and BlackBerries!). But there is no breath-taking story, "We Need New Names" is no page-turner, and I struggled to engage with any of the characters. NoViolet Bulawayo' s main heroine is not compelling or very convincing. Yes, she is still a child, but we never really get to know her better or see how she changes or grows emotionally.

Extra star for a small number of poignant metaphoric scenes, such as the last passages of the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2015
Written from the perspective of a Zimbabwean child at first after she is displaced from her home to shacks and poverty in Zimbabwe and then from America, the land do dreams, where she goes to live with her aunt. Her aching longing and love for her people, country, customs, language pervades the book and Darling tries to hold on to her culture and home despite being increasingly engulfed by American life. the book is not written as a conventional continuous narrative but rather as a series of related events/stories. Bulawayo's writing style is engaging and compelling. The poverty of Zimbabwe and the contrasting excess of the USA cleverly portrayed in a way that draws you into to the setting depicted, not only in terms of its physical characteristics but right into the emotional perspective. It is not a feel good, America the great book but paints a clear picture of why it is Sen as the ultimate dream and the ways in which it fails to fulfil that dream. It does this without elf pity or bitterness but as a reader I really felt the sadness and homesickness that accompanied Darling in America. It is a book that will stay with me. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
NoViolet Bulawayo's intensely personal debut book, "We Need New Names" absolutely sizzles with life and colour. This is a young African author who shows great promise, and I devoutly hope that she will fulfill that promise.

As this implies, "We Need New Names" is not fully successful. The book began as a set of short stories, developed by the author into a narrative which was brought into the world a little prematurely. More work could have been done to take it from the realm of the short story into that of the novel, which should have more direction, larger themes and a broader canvas. There is still the flavour of the writing workshop here, of a writer enchanted by her own newly-discovered voice, but not knowing quite what to do with it.

As such, the book is a brilliant study of youthful exuberance and sexuality, but leaves the reader with a sense of not having gone as far as it should have done.

The author's very real talent, however, makes this a five-star read, and I can't wait to see what comes next.

A highly entertaining, vividly-written book, recommended to all.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I enjoyed this book, the exuberant tone of the Zimbabwe section, the sense of community in hardship, even the obsession with guavas, my favourite fruit. The contrast with America was well made, the sense of the immigrant being lost and stranded in a strange land, this sense increasing with old age, as people in the old country grew away or died. This is strongly epitomised by uncle Kojo who is disintegrating and alcoholic, and by a relative in a mental hospital who believes he is Tshaka Zulu. I enjoyed the flowing style and imagery, although occasionally felt it was there more for adornment than expression. As someone who myself has attempted to write about Zimbabwe in first person diary format I think the author manages the child's voice well, and the transition to teen narrator. Nevertheless I don't see this novel as Booker Prize shortlist quality, for a start it seems to me too one-dimensional, perhaps I've been reading too much Donna Tartt! It also seems strange that the fawning literary establishment accepts the author's pen name with never a hint of raillery; let somebody try "Nopetunia Birmingham"!
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 18 July 2013
Darling is a young girl from a slum in Zimbabwe, out of school because the teachers all emigrated, who spends her days running around with her pack of friends and stealing guavas from the plush neighbourhood of Budapest. The prose in this story is deliciously written, and you can taste and smell her environment. A curious feature of the book is how Bulawayo switches between first person singular and plural seamlessly. The characters are well drawn, even with their weird names like Bornfree, Bastard, Mother of Bones, and the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro. Though dealing with serious issues, there's a laugh a page in this book, and Darling is a pretty unsentimental narrator. The American section of the novel sees a shift in voice, and again this is skilfully handled, as we watch Darling try to change her accent and herself in order to adapt to her new environment. The difficulties of being a first generation migrant with no papers are emotive and make for compelling reading. Has to be one of the best African novels I've read in a long time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 August 2014
I will not repeat the storyline as many reviewers have done this already. Like others I found the first half, Darling's childhood in Zimbabwe much more compelling - big political events told from a ten year old's visual perspective just recording what she sees and what has happened to her family.
The US section just loses impetus - there is no real plot or back story just a collection of events with Uncle Kojo and Aunt Fostalina. I get the agony of their displacement and it did bring home to me why the illegals remain illegal and why they cannot return home; yet this is not enough in a work of fiction - Darling's character seems static and some of the other characters lack depth and seem stereotypical.
I wanted more of Bastard, Godknows, Chipo and Sbho!
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