We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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We Need New Names Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: shanty, dream, challenges, America, new

We Need New Names begins in Zimbabwe where 10-year-old Darling is living in a shanty town. She manages to stave off her hunger pangs by stealing guavas from the homes of rich, white people. Things look as though they might improve with the fall of white supremacy, but life for the children only becomes more harrowing. Eventually Darling manages to escape to America and the book shows how she adapts to life in a very different culture.

Unfortunately I had mixed feelings about this book. Darling’s narration was compelling, but I’m afraid the immigrant story has been done many times before and this book failed to add anything new to the genre. I found myself losing interest in Darling’s story once she’d left Africa and wish the story had concentrated on those left behind.

The book had many fantastic scenes and I especially liked the subtle way that the horrors the children faced were woven into the text. This innocence and simple acceptance of events kept the mood light and entertaining, despite the starvation, child pregnancies and murder.

The book also covered many bigger, global issues, but, although dressed in childhood charm, I occasionally felt that Darling’s comments were too wise for her age:

If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?

Overall this was a book of two halves. The first half was a refreshing new voice in African fiction; the second an average repeat of an over-told story. I’m not convinced it deserves a place on the Booker shortlist.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 ….no one captures the simple wickedness of children better and this book is cruel and cutting in all the right places. Bookslingers

….the book could have been a bit more polished but everyone got something out of it… Bookfoolery

NoViolet Bulawayo has created a fictional world that stuns as it captivates. The Bowed Bookshelf



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  1. This author is actually an alumna from the university I attended (go English dept!) and where I work now; we’re all terribly excited that she was nominated. I haven’t read the book yet, but I hope to very soon. I’m usually quite picky about immigrant stories in general, so we’ll see how it goes.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, Congratulations to your English department! She is a very talented author and this book shows she has an amazing book in there somewhere. Hopefully her next one will be wonderful all the way through :-)

  2. Sandy says:

    I’m feeling that way about many genres…PLEASE people, show me something new! I think that the “starving child in war-torn Africa” plot is going to become as worn down as the WWII ones. I find them endlessly fascinating, but after awhile you feel like you are reading the same stories over and over with different names.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I agree. An average author can make a new story interesting, but it takes something really special to be able to bring that sparkle to a story we’ve heard before. The main problem of reading so much :-(

  3. I’m listening to this one now, and I’m surprised it’s still in Zimbabwe. I’m enjoying it, but after reading the description I expected Darling’s journey to begin sooner. After seeing your thoughts, I’m glad to still be in Zimbabwe. I’ll be curious how I feel at the end, as child narrators are hit (Room!) or miss for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, Child narrators are very hit/miss for me too! This one does work, but it was the immigration bit that didn’t. I look forward to comparing notes once you’ve finished.

  4. Waiting for the audio from the library. I’ll be curious to see how it goes for me. Thanks for sharing Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, This feels like a book that could work really well on audio. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

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