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This review is from: We Need New Names (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Oct 2013 09:05:21 BDT
Julia Johnston says:
Excellent, insightful and thoughtful review. I'm a soon-to-be published writer and was setting about making my mind up re which of the Man Booker novels nominated I might read. This is hugely helpful. Thank you.
In reply to an earlier post on 20 Oct 2013 10:33:37 BDT
Last edited by the author on 20 Oct 2013 11:23:44 BDT
My favourite this year was The Kills, although I think it is experimental and won't be to everyone's taste. Of the shortlisters, I would go for Jim Crace's Harvest. We Need New Names didn't seem great at the time but actually I can still remember bits of it now when some of the other books have faded completely. It must have something going for it after all.
Good luck with your own book.
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