Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Thoughts - We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
published 5/31/13
296 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America's famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few

My thoughts -

Last month the longlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced, and because I am just swimming in free time right now, I thought it would be fun to try and read some of the titles before the prize was announced. (Why not, right??) This is the first time I've intentionally read books listed for a specific prize, and I know the Man Booker prize selections can sometimes be challenging, so I'm interested to see what I think of these titles.

We Need New Names is the first novel in my Man Booker experiment, and I think it was a great one to start off the reading. In the past, the titles on the list have seemed intimidating, but this novel was accessible and gripping from the start. Bulawayo gives readers a world-wise and yet still innocent narrator in Darling, and viewing both Zimbabwe and America through her eyes is an enlightening experience.

Darling and her friends live life in Zimbabwe in conditions that seem difficult but not dire - while they are hungry at times and skirt the edges of danger and the law, their days are still centered around their games, or going to church, or making fun of the white NGO workers coming to pass out food and small gifts. It would be interesting to read a comparable novel from an adult's perspective, because while Darling is a fascinating voice, I was never quite convinced of her reliability in conveying the actuality of her situation in Zimbabwe.

"Heavenway is mounds and mounds of read earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming." (p. 134)

I found the second half of the novel, when Darling arrives in America, to be even more perilous than the first - no one tells Darling what she will have to give up for her big "chance" to come to America. Watching her lose contact with the friends and family, and the sense of alone-ness and invisibility she felt was heartbreaking. America is not the paradise Darling expects, and while she manages to leave Zimbabwe with some of her innocence left, that is quickly crushed when she arrives in Michigan. Bulawayo captures the disappointment of the immigrant experience in a way that her readers will not soon forget.

"Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back down." (p. 242)

I found Bulawayo's writing to be exceptional - emotional at times, sharp and funny at others, always perfectly descriptive of the place and people she wrote about. I almost felt like this was more a collection of linked short stories than a true novel - each chapter's events were fully contained, and there was not necessarily an overarching plotline that carried throughout.

I found this novel to be fascinating and disturbing and emotional and challenging. I would absolutely recommend it - I will definitely be anticipating the next work by this author. What a great start to my Man Booker experiment!

Finished - 8/5/13
Source- South side library
MPAA rating - R for violence, language, adult situations
My rating - 8/10


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Definitely want to try this one --glad u enjoyed it.

bermudaonion said...

Boy does that sound good. I don't think America is the paradise a lot of immigrants picture it to be. My grandmother thought the streets were literally paved with gold before she came here.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I don't always use Booker nominations as a guide for what to read, but I have been wanting to read We Need New Names for ages. Everyone has said wonderful things about Bulawayo's writing, and I do want to read more African authors anyway.

Aarti said...

Like Jenny, I want to read more African authors, too. This one sounds really good! I like your idea of reading the long list. Looking forward to your thoughts on the others!