We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Here is my review of We Need New Names, written and read, before the Booker prize was announced.

I’m really glad this book is on the shortlist because it feels like a book that really has something to say, that isn’t covered in academic dust. Not to say that it isn’t beautifully written and bursting with intellectual conflicts, but those conflicts just happen to breathe.

Darling is a young girl living in a Zimbabwean shantytown. She lives the troubles of her country until she is “lucky” enough to go to America where she is imprisoned by the luxury because to leave would mean not returning. She misses home. She is accused of abandoning the burning house of her falling apart country but what choice does she really have? She is safe and not hungry in America, even if she is forever foreign now, not American but also marked and separate from her family and friends back in Zimbabwe.

I am a great fan of Dambudzo Marechera and there are echoes of his turmoil and his anger at the tensions of a forked tongue. To fit in, Darling has to learn an American English that her friends from home do not recognise – she is severed from the land that bore her – using the language of privilege is a kind of betrayal.

It is the first time I have read a story about children living in hunger and civil war since I’ve had my own children and I had nightmares imagining them having to live with that level of fear and hunger, that lack of shelter from all the worst parts of being human, and for that, and for what we expect immigrants to undergo to live in our privilege, this is a book I feel we should all be reading even if, at the very least, all we do is appreciate our luck for once.

This book is relevant and interesting and I would be very pleased if it won the Booker but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t because it is almost the antithesis of the western male contemporary realism prizes like the Booker seem to value. Just read it, that’s all that really matters.

I’ll be posting my review of Harvest, by Jim Crace in a couple of days, after which I’ll be reviewing the Booker prize-winning, The Luminaries and then I’ll be starting the blog in real time – that’s to say one review a week – with Melissa Bailey’s The Medici Mirror.

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