Given how much I enjoyed this book I feel almost a little embarrassed of how I ended up getting a copy. I picked it up second hand, along with two other books at the Gibson Street Gala, where I took advantage of an offer of 3 books for £1. Now, normally, I’d assuage this guilt by going and buying something else by the author but unfortunately, NoViolet Bulawayo hasn’t published her next book yet, so I’ll have to wait.
We Need New Names follows Darling, a child in an unnamed, struggling African country. There are parallels with Zimbabwe, were Bulawayo is from, but this is never explicitly stated. Darling remembers better times living with her parents in a real house but now manages a surprisingly optimistic existence in a makeshift shack in a slum called Paradise. Here she spends time with her friends who also live in the slum, playing games, singing songs and stealing guavas from the gardens of the houses belonging to the rich, white people who live in nearby “Budapest.”
In spite of Darling’s child-like optimism about what’s going on around her, it’s clear that all is not well. This book does nothing to blunt the blow of slum life and political and humanitarian chaos going on in Darling’s country in the time she spends there. When she later leaves for Detroit Michigan (or, as it’s initially called by the characters, Destroyed Michigan) and Darling becomes a teenager, Darling, while grateful for her new life, is also a little disappointed that America isn’t as perfect as she was promised, and becomes less optimistic about her treatment there, and the treatment of her family in Paradise.
While most of the book is narrated by Darling, there are two sections within it that are not. These are almost poetic and are linked to the themes of the novel but don’t seem to be coming from Darling, they’re more like a general representation of the mood of a person who may have had similar experiences to her. I found them moving and disturbing.
But, as David Foster Wallace said, “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Clearly, this is good fiction.