Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.
But Darling has a chance to escape: She has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America's famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few.
NoViolet Bulawayo's debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her - from Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee - while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.
©2013 NoViolet Kulawayo (P)2013 Hachette Audio
Short, Simple, No Spoilers
Born in Africa, Darling and family live in paucity; no shoes or food. Stealing guavas and occasionally breaking in homes to raid fridges, siblings are relatively happy with each other. In hopes of a better future, Darling moves to Detroit with relatives and finds a blustery winter with plenty of food, school, and work opportunities.
No new names presents no new information and didn't draw me in as a reader. The writing is a singular narrative, choppy and uneven, with no real point. The book is akin to opening an ordinary girl's journal and reading haphazard entries devoid of profound meaning, lacking purpose or excitement.
If you choose to listen to this one, expect a realistic, but bland journey of an African girl's assimilation to current day American culture.
Seeking well-written, gritty, emotionally gut wrenching drama? Download, "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave or "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah for good reads. Volumes of more poignant tales of poverty and perseverance surrounding African culture are readily available elsewhere. Save your credit.
This book was described to me as telling the story of a young African girl’s immigration to the United States and her struggles to become an American. So I was a bit surprised when about one-half of the book was spent describing her childhood in Africa. As it turned out, this was by far the best part of the book. Perhaps because I myself was born and bred in the United States, I found her descriptions of everyday life in Africa much more interesting than those of life in America.
What I did find utterly convincing was the way Bulawayo inhabited her child protagonist, and then later in the book, the teenager. The author has a very unique way of showing the thought processes going on in the heads of her characters, such as the child’s delight in playing simple games, her obsession with food, and her occasional defiance of adult authority. Each scene unfolds from the child’s point-of-view, more often than not revealing her incomplete understanding of what is going on in the larger world around her. This is incredibly effective in several scenes in the first part of the book when the protagonist and her friends either witness or (nearly) perpetrate incredible cruelty without actually understanding or being affected by it.
The author skips a few years in the protagonist’s life and presents her as a young teenager already living in America. The transition was awkward and left me wondering why there was little to no explanation of how the girl ended up living in Michigan. The descriptions of difficulties with the simplest things-like making oneself understood over the telephone, or answering misguided questions about one’s country—were well done and were undoubtedly drawn from real life. So, too, the short sections in which she deals with the angst of the exile, a fascinating combination of exhilarating triumph (look at me! I have a home of my own, children who are Americans!) and deep sadness (never being able to return home, watching one’s children ignore or belittle traditions from the homeland). There are also some telling critiques of American society, but overall this entire half of the book felt more preachy than enlightened. Long passages about teenaged girls’ obsession with clothes and porn seemed to serve little narrative purpose, and the ending was strangely difficult to understand.
So I am glad I read this but for a more compelling—and nonfiction—take on Africans in exile in America, I would highly recommend Rescuing Regina by Josephe Marie Flynn.
[I listened to this as an audio book read by Robin Miles. She did a fantastic job of doing all kinds of different accents, very nuanced, wonderful performance.]
"We Need New Names" is a lovely, engaging, and moving book at any rate. But Ms Miles's narration carries it to a completely new level of immersion and beauty. She provides a crisp, beautiful rendering of Darling's voice as a young girl with a childish inflection and a strong Zimbabwean accent, and transitions later in the book to a more teenaged inflection and self-consciously American accent. The voices she provides for other characters add flavor as well, such as the contrast between the voice of the American NGO workers' broad Californian dialect and the speech of Darlings' friends; or, the contrast between the adolescent Darling's carefully calibrated "proper English" and her school-friend's "Ebonics" (as the friend herself calls it in the book). The interaction of speech and voice and identity forms a central theme of "We Need New Names", and Ms Miles's narration breathes palpable life into this theme. Just magnificent work. I am off to search Audible for other books she has narrated.
NoViolet has created a distinctive voice for Darling - the child protagonist of this story who grows up over the course of the book. Her early life is spent in Africa - in a land never named - amid incredible desperation and poverty. There is no sermonizing, sentimentalizing, or editorializing about her predicament, however, and Darling is allowed to describe what is of interest to her in her own words. Meaning that when she is very young she focuses on things that a very young child would be interested in. At times, I was not so interested in what a child was seeing - but it was important to persevere because these early childhood experiences help to make sense of how she sees America after immigrating.
After moving to America, Darling becomes a thoughtful interpreter of what it means to be an African trying to grow up in America. Some of it is insightful, some of it funny, and some of it a sad indictment of life in America.
Robin Miles - the narrator - is reason enough to listen to this book. She is OUTSTANDING. She moves easily from child to adult, male to female, and African inflected to American street slang. Simply riveting narration!
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