2013 Man Booker Shortlisted: Audiobook Review: We Need New Names

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Rating: 3.5
We Need New Names
A Novel by NuViolet Bulawayo
2013 / 298 pages

Darling is a 10 year old girl from Zimbabwe. She and her family have been forced out of their home and now live in a shanty town (called “Paradise”). Her father has gone off to South Africa (to find work/money) and her mother is trying to scrape together what she can so they don’t starve while he is away. Since there is no longer a school to attend, Darling and her gang of friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina) are free to spend their days waiting for the NCO truck to arrive with supplies and gifts. In the meantime they hunt for guavas, play intricate games (find bin Ladin, Country Game, War Lord) and get into mischief in the “white” section of town all while avoiding the men with the machetes. They are trying to make the best of what they have but it is hard when they have known a different life– before the bulldozers came; before 11 year old Chipo got a baby in her belly.

More than anything else Darling would like to go to America. Her aunt is already there and has promised to send for her. She has grand plans once she finally arrives. She will drive a Lamborghini, become friends with Lady GaGa and wear beautiful dresses. She will live in a mansion and bathe in money (like all Americans do). She just has to bide her time until the day comes when she can leave this kaka place!

The day finally arrives when she gets on the plane– promising to write, promising to return. Things are not what she imagined. The streets are not paved with gold. “Destroyedmichygen” looks like a different kind of war zone– slummy and bare . And there is snow! Everywhere!! Still, Darling makes the best of what she has while she is there.

This book does have some flaws. Some of my fellow BookerMarkers might even say many flaws plus a pile of kaka on top. But, because I listened to it I was able to over look (or not notice) what has now been pointed out. Narrator Robin Miles’ sing-song African accented voice made Darling seem, well, darling!! She charmed me– especially in the first part while they were still “innocent” 10 year olds living in a cruel, cruel world. The language and presentation almost made their lives seem light hearted when nothing could be further from the truth– a heartbreaking scene where the girls attempt to give their pal Chipo an abortion, a maniac preacher who seemed to be raping the devil out of a woman and a mother’s absolute anguish as she buries her only son– but maybe in Africa this is what children are used to seeing.

As Darling spends more time in America she loses her charm (and in the narration she also loses her accent as well– very well done and very clever!!). Six years in she has used America for all it is worth– she has attended school, found a steady job and has even made some American friends. She still feels a kinship with Zimbabwe and would like to return to visit but she feels that she has truly belongs in America. Trouble is she never will be. Her visitors visa has long expired and she risks never being able to return if she leaves. Darling has found herself stuck between worlds– not really belonging to either place. It is actually very sad.

Maybe not the best written book in the world– and it is still surprising to me that it made the short list instead of Transatlantic— but I think that I know what Ms. Bulawayo was trying to do here. 3.5 stars from me.

This review was simultaneously posted on BookerMarks.