NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel may not be considered a grand, sweeping novel, but it sure felt like one. We Need New Names is about Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl whose narration is honest and beautiful. Each chapter really feels like a separate short story; there is no fluidity between them other than characters and theme. This is not one story of a girl, but so many that truly define her.
The first half of the novel takes place in a town called Paradise. I’ve never been to Africa, but this young girls narration makes me feel like I have. The diction is in broken English. A man’s penis is simply “his thing.” She doesn’t understand why white people smile simply by just showing their teeth for a few moments instead of with their eyes and entire face. Bulawayo, born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to America for school, much like Darling. The best part of her writing is how she doesn’t shy away from how she spoke as a child. In fact, it’s a major part of the book. After Darling heads to America for the second half of the book, the narration becomes more Americanized.
Subtly, the theme of home creeps up. At first Darling is determined to go visit her small country in Africa, but as the chapters pass, she doesn’t seem capable of returning. The duality of her life isn’t as stark as one would imagine it could be. She does go from running around shoeless with children named Godknows and Bastard to attending a private academy in Michigan. However, it’s not black and white. In Zimbabwe or in Michigan, it doesn’t matter. She strives for something more than is being offered. In both places she is smart, but isn’t necessarily well educated on may aspects of life.
Understanding the character really does come from Bulawayo’s prose. The diction shifts, but even the character’s thoughts develop so genuinely over the short time we spend with her in the just under 300 page book. As the chapter’s progress so do the wants and desires. Any good coming of age story should do this, but rarely do they do so with such greatness.
Out of all of the books I have read so far, this was perhaps both the most straight forward and the most uniquely written one of them all.