We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
It’s sad and eerie reading NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut less than a month after another inevitable, but no less depressing, election victory for Robert Mugabe. The novel’s first half takes place against the backdrop of the closer-run 2008 contest, amid the tempered optimism and eventual victimisation of Tsvangirai supporters who repeat “change” so often as to (all too literally, it turns out) rob the word of any meaning. A further irony, for a book set partly in a country where everything seems to stay the same, is that We Need New Names is dominated by change.
The novel tells the story of a canny adolescent called Darling, who we follow through a series of dizzying jump cuts from early puberty to her pre-university summer. The opening chapters centre around our heroine and her friends Stina, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho and Bastard scrounging for food and playing games, and would be pleasantly directionless if the children didn’t play at pelting dead bodies with sticks, and didn’t have to periodically stop playing and wait for one of their number, pregnant after being raped by her grandfather, to catch up.
Bulawayo pumps life back into this bleak material through her long whooshing sentences, investing Darling’s voice with enough charm, idiom and wit to light up the darkest corners of the unnamed shanty town we find her in, troubled but happy. When she suddenly warps, in the breath-pause between two chapters, to living with her Aunt and Uncle in America (“DestroyedMichygen” to be precise) – where the brutality and dangers of Zimbabwe are replaced with menial work, visa-anguish and snow – the vivid prose is all-consuming.
With such a lot going on linguistically, the choice not to demarcate speech other than with a votive “he/she says” leads to the occasional scrambling of sense; the narrative voice is so strong and the other characters so comparatively thinly drawn that it can take half a page to work out that a particular speaker wasn’t Darling but one of her more vapid American school friends.
When you’re in such good company though, it’s hard to complain. We Need New Names is a distinct and hyper-contemporary treatment of the old You Can’t Go Home Again mould, and the book has more than enough going for it to easily graduate from the Booker longlist to the final six.
We Need New Names is published by Chatto & Windus at the hardback price of £14.99, for further information visit here.