We Need New Names is the story of Darling and her friends. Darling is ten and lives in an unnamed African country (it bears a resemblance to Zimbabwe) in an area ironically named Paradise. As the novel begins, they are on their way out of their district:
We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.
Budapest is the rich area and their meeting with a woman from London, visiting her father’s house, serves to illustrate the disparity between the two lifestyles. Darling dreams of a better life, a life like this one, with her Aunt Fostalina in America where she’ll be ‘eating real food and doing better things than stealing’.
After the grim first half of the novel (in the first two chapters alone a priest rapes a woman in full view of his congregation and Chipo’s revealed to have become pregnant by her grandfather), Darling’s dream comes true and she moves to America. But of course, the reality of living in American cannot meet the quality of the dream in Darling’s head.
We Need New Names really is a novel of two halves. The first half, although grim, is very engaging. Bulawayo shows us what it’s like to live in poverty and in thrall to the West – the children’s games are ‘Find Bin Laden’ and the country game:
But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries…Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri-Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be in a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?
The prose is rhythmic and enchanting, propelling us through the disjointed scenes of Darling’s life.
However, the second half of the novel feels sterile and cold in comparison. The shift from Africa to America is swift and involves a disconcerting change in voice: Darling has been bullied at school on arrival and so has changed her accent and dialect in an attempt to fit in. Unfortunately I wasn’t entirely convinced by this.
America is also grim, although in an entirely different way: Aunt Fostalina follows an exercise regime that her husband despairs of:
…You know me, I actually don’t understand why you are doing all this. What are you doing to yourself, Fostalina, really-exactly-what? Kick. And punch. And kick. And punch. Look at you, bones bones bones. All bones. And for what? They are not even African, those women you are doing like, shouldn’t that actually tell you something?
In a side-note to a school day, a boy guns down his classmates and porn is easily accessible by teenagers with an internet connection.
It’s in the American section that we see the crux of the novel: what it’s like to be an (illegal) immigrant. What it feels like to work two jobs to survive knowing that you can’t go home and eventually realising that you belong in neither your home country or your adopted one, having elements of both but a full understanding of neither.
We Need New Names is a novel that shows real promise. There’s no question that Bulawayo can write and there were sections of the book that I really engaged with. Unfortunately the novel was just too patchy – both in terms of feeling like an interlinked short story collection as opposed to a novel and because of the abrupt change in the voice – to be declared a success. However, I will be looking out for Bulawayo’s next work and hoping that it sees her potential fulfilled.
Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.