Monday, 26 May 2014

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

I've been interested in We Need New Names ever since it first came out, and my interest grew when it was short-listed for the Booker Prize last year.  Told from the point of view of ten year old Darling, it's the story of life in a shanty town called Paradise, in an unnamed African country.  Darling and her friends have a tough life and they dream of escaping to a Western country, away from the poverty and hardship.  But when Darling does get the chance to move to America, she realises that the reality of life as an immigrant can never live up to her expectations.

We Need New Names is one of the best books I've read this year.  It's written in an uncompromising, no-nonsense style that suits the narrator and her experiences.  I'm normally a bit sceptical about adult books written from the perspective of children, but in this case Bulawayo has really pulled it off - Darling is blunt and matter of fact when detailing the realities of her life, and this stops the book becoming too sentimental.

Even though We Need New Names contains lots of hardship, it's not a simple story by any means, and I appreciated the subtleties Bulawayo gets into the novel.  Darling may be forced to steal food that makes her ill to survive in Paradise, and she may have a female friend who is pregnant following a rape, but we get to see the happier side of her life in the shanty too.  Darling has real friends and gets to be a child with them, playing all sorts of games, and this is something that vanishes when she moves to America, causing all of her memories of home to be bitter-sweet.

Being an immigrant in America is shown to be complicated matter as well.  Darling feels the pressure of not fitting in, of being out of step with everyone she knows.  Her relatives are forced to work all hours in physically demanding and sometimes illegal jobs, struggling to make ends meet whilst fielding off demands for money from those back home, who can't believe that America is anything but a land of milk and honey.  Again, I loved that Bulawayo showed the complexity of all of these issues and that life has no simple answers.

We Need New Names is worth reading for the character of Darling alone.  She's vibrant and simply leaps off the page, no matter what situation she is in.  Despite being quite a depressing (yet realistic) read at times, Darling always gives the story life and hope.  I simply loved every page of this book and highly recommend it.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2013
Edition Read: Vintage, 2014
Score: 5 out of 5

Read Alongside:

  1. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddy Ratner - Seven year old Raami lives through the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  Another excellent child narrator in an adult story.
  2. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman - Like We Need New Names, this one examines the immigrant experience.  Harri has arrived in London from Ghana, and finds himself mixed up with gangs after the murder of a local teenager.
  3. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson - Set in Nigeria, Blessing moves to a rural compound with her family in the oil-rich Niger Delta.  Again, another great example of a child narrator.
  4. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - I just love Adichie, and this coming of age story has a lot in common with Darling's coming of age when she arrives in America.

17 comments:

  1. I can't wait to read it! I think I'll be getting to it soon because it sounds so darn good.

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    1. I think you would really enjoy it, Andi. Can't wait to see what you make of it!

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  2. This sounds very interesting -- I'll have to check it out!

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  3. I read this last week too and loved it! The writing style is just beautiful and well-fitting the character. I liked how she speaks broken English initially and it eventually gets better once she moves to the US.

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    1. Glad you loved it as well. Good point about the writing style, it's something I appreciated too - the whole character and portrayal of Darling was just so well done.

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  4. I've seen one too many sparkling reviews of this book this last week that I can avoid it no longer. I must read it!

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    1. Can't wait to see what you make of it...

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  5. Sounds amazing - will have to get myself a copy of this one. Great review Sam!

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  6. I hadn't heard of this book before but there is something about books that either win or have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize that I usually love!

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    1. I've had a mixed reaction to Booker books in the past, this is one of the few that I have really loved.

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  7. Sounds like my kinda read. I've slowly been getting into the immigrant stories too.

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    1. I love immigrant stories, which is kind of strange as I'm not a migrant myself. But something in them really appeals to me.

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  8. I love that you have a companion list of what else to read. Shadow of the Banyan is on my desk right now. I also have weird feelings over child narrators, but i'm glad this one is done well. I guess i better get reading!

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    1. Shadow of the Banyan is really good, hope you are enjoying it :)

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  9. This sounds really good. I find that I can take books about depressing situations if the protagonist is a really vibrant stand-out character.

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