VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon December 9, 2013
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.
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.