BOOK REVIEW: 'We Need New Names' about a child of two lands, at home in neither

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEMay 19, 2013 

  • 'WE NEED NEW NAMES'

    by NoViolet Bulawayo; Little, Brown & Co. ($25)

"When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky," NoViolet Bulawayo writes in her deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel. "They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands." They leave behind their mothers and fathers and "the bones of their ancestors in the earth" - they leave behind "everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay."

The place they are leaving, in this case, is Zimbabwe, that African nation brutalized by more than 30 years of malignity and neglect under the autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe - a country reeling, as the journalist Peter Godwin noted in his powerful 2011 book "The Fear" from unemployment, hunger, inflation, AIDS, and the government's torture and violent intimidation of all political opposition. The place many of them are hoping to flee to is the United States - the destination of the novel's young narrator, Darling, who will begin a new life there with her aunt.

Darling is 10 when we meet her, and the voice Bulawayo has fashioned for her is utterly distinctive - by turns unsparing and lyrical, unsentimental and poetic, spiky and meditative. It is the voice of a child - observant, skeptical and hardhearted in the way children can be. She pinches a sick baby she does not want to hold so he will cry and she can hand him back to his mother, and she is coldly standoffish when her long-absent father returns home from South Africa, having become sick with AIDS.

Darling processes the misfortunes of Zimbabwe and its politics through the eyes of a child - talk of elections and hopes of change are something grown-ups engage in; she and her friends are more concerned with filling their empty stomachs with stolen guavas and inventing games to pass the time.

Thanks to her Aunt Fostalina, who lives in "Destroyedmichygen" (Detroit, Michigan), Darling does make it to the United States. At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices ("Do you prefer this or that? Are you sure? - as if I have become a real person") and by the silent mystery of snow: it's like "we're in the crazy parts of the Bible, there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and is making them miserable with all the weather."

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