We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Posted by Guy Pringle, 30th May 2013

The title is palpably wrong with a cast of delightfully named characters such as Bastard (11), Godknows, (10), Sbho (9) and Stina who doesn’t have a birth certificate. So we’re informed by our narrator, Darling (10) and not forgetting Chipo (11) who we learn in chapter one is pregnant. This gang of harmless kids runs free in Paradise – a shanty town. Other characters rejoice in equally colourful names, none better than the local preacher, Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro.


Through Darling’s observations of the gang’s activities, often in search of food, we build up a view of life in Zimbabwe (although it is never named). Having thrown off colonial rule some years back things are little better, even worse. Their educated parents settled lifestyle has been bulldozed into the ground by terrorists and survival now means men leaving for work in South Africa, with the spectre of AIDS in the background.


Escaping to America where her Aunt Fostolina lives is Darling’s fervent hope and as conditions gradually worsen you start to worry for her safety. And then suddenly she is there and acclimatizing, as children are wont to do, very quickly. Staying in touch with the gang is her priority but in doing so Darling begins to realize the drawbacks of life in the US and how much she misses her home and friends.


And so to that title, tucked away early in the book, when the girls of the gang decide to help Chipo to abort her grandfather’s child. One of them having seen it on TV – ER – they conclude that they need new names – as doctors - in order to complete the task. Fortunately, Chipo realizes the flaw in their plan and the story moves on but that title comes back to underpin the book. Darling can’t go back, it’s too expensive and her visa has run out; she is growing up an illegal alien consigned to menial jobs because she has no real identity.


Forgive me if I’ve made this sound depressing – it isn’t, in fact I often found myself laughing out loud – but this isn’t the Africa of Alexander McCall Smith. Ms Bulawayo has made this journey and her debut carries the ring of truth. In doing so she touches on a myriad of issues that will give a reading group twisted blood as they try to empathise and sympathise.


Highly recommended.

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