We Need New Names


Darling is only ten 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.

~Synopsis from Goodreads

I got this book back in October and I was really stoked to read it. Unfortunately, I stumbled on a few not-so-great reviews of the book, and put it aside to read at some other time. However, the cover was just so bright and appealing that I couldn’t postpone my reading of this book for long.

My Review

The book starts explosively. Darling and her friends are off stealing guavas in the shanty town of Paradise in Zimbabwe. Within a couple of sentences, we know their situation in life is not good.

We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody took a shovel and dug everything out.

The above sentence is a very good example of her writing – very visceral, and while not always beautiful, never fails to touch your heart. The use of present tense through most of the novel is absolutely spot on, and as a reader I felt very present during all of Darling’s escapades.

However by the second or third chapter, I realized the reasons for the uneven reviews of this book. Don’t go into this book expecting a story with a strong plot and purpose. The book is really a series of vignettes from Darling’s life and in all probability a thinly disguised memoir. If you go into this book expecting a regular sort of plot, you will be disappointed.

Think of each chapter as a short story or a slice of Darling’s life and you will have a better expectation entering this book.

Each chapter of Darling’s life in Zimbabwe is wonderful. Darling is also one of the best-written bookish kids I read recently (rivalling Nao from A Tale for the Time Being).

I liked two stories in particular – a chapter called Shhh about Darling’s father’s battle with AIDS and her reaction to it is written in a very interesting way. For some time, Darling only knows her father has a sickness and her revulsion to his sickness and anger at him for abandoning their family is conveyed very honestly. She realizes it is AIDS only when her friends come to visit (I have quoted an excerpt here) and the ending of that chapter really touched my heart.

In another chapter, Darling and her friends are play-acting a young man’s brutal death at the hands of the President’s goons. At the end of it, they suddenly realize that BBC cameras are trained on them. Their play-acting and their reactions to being filmed are captured so well, exactly how you would expect a group of children to react in an unexpected situation.

In the middle of the book, Darling makes her way to America. Her aunt has wrangled a visitor visa and of course she overstays and lives there permanently. Her reactions to the new place she in her ignorance calls Destroyedmichigan (Detroit, Michigan), her loneliness, and the disconnect she feels is also conveyed well.

While she was in Africa, she and her friends had dreamed of emigration. America was the land of dreams. The reality however is sadly different. America is nothing like the life she thought she would have, nothing like the dreams of owning her dream car and being a millionaire. It is a cold place where she has to struggle to fit in.

There’s one standalone chapter about immigrant life in America that’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. This is not an essay of the regular immigration experience of educated people going on work visas and settling – not those that Jhumpa Lahiri writes about so well. This is a different kind of immigration – fraught with the danger of being deported, the sacrifices they make, the struggles with language, the disconnect with others, the disconnect with their own children. Here are a couple of quotes:


What Didn’t I Like About the Book?

The ending is flat. Just too too flat. Even in a series of vignettes, there is an expectation of an overall story arc building up to something. That is not there in this book. The last couple of chapters are average compared to the brilliance of the earlier parts of the book. As a reader, I felt a sense of incompleteness, I really wanted to know what Darling would go on to do, but apart from a couple of hints, there is nothing. Maybe that was to be expected in a book of this nature, but still the last feeling when I closed this book was one of disappointment.

When I compare it to A Tale for the Time Being – and there are a few points of comparison – youthful protagonists, Man Booker shortlisted, read by me within months of each other, I can’t help noticing how strong the ending was for A Tale for the Time Being, and how weak this book’s ending was.

I enjoyed We Need New Names‘ rawness far more than the polished perfection of A Tale for the Time Being. In the middle, Ozeki’s book was all over the place, but she was able to tie all the threads together at the end whereas Bulawayo’s book was brilliant all through but faltered at the ending.

I read this book as part of my participation in my own personal Man Booker reading challenge and the African reading challenge.

Huge thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.

  • Thanks for the link. I agree. Reading the book as ‘slices of Darling’s life’ makes more sense. There are parts that are enjoyable and a few that are dull

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  • guiltlessreading

    I’m putting this on my TBR Nishita! It sort of reminds me of Uwem Akpan’s short story collection. Children’s stories are always hard to read when they’re depicted in poverty — but that is the sad reality. Thank you for the thoughtful review!

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  • Kinna

    I read Bulawayo’s Caine Prize winning story which I think is part of this collection of interconnected short stories. I was a bit ambivalent about the portrayal of the children. It was labeled ‘poverty porn’. But I want to read the book to see where she goes with their story. Thanks for the review.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_p42f9rYv7Y:disqus I don’t know that I would call it poverty porn. It depends on the way you look at it. If there is a lot of poverty how do you shy away from depicting it? And why should you?

  • I loved this book! And also completely loved A Tale for the Time Being!!!! Thank you for linking up to the Spread the Love Linky Party! I also pinned this!

    • Nishita

      @LoveAtFirstBook:disqus Thanks for visiting, and commenting, and the pin!

  • Silver’s Reviews

    Great post…thanks for sharing. Nicely done.

    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog

    • Nishita

      @silversreviews:disqus Thank you 🙂

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  • Reading Pleasure

    A wonderful review,Nish. I think you have done great justice to the book. I must look for a copy here and read it. Thanks!

    • Nishita

      @Reading Pleasure: You should. This is a book I loved in spite of its flaws. I think you will like it too

  • Jenny @ Reading the End

    It’s great to know that these are more like slices-of-life than a cohesive novel with a single plot. That absolutely would have bothered/annoyed me if I’d gone in with different expectations. I’ll try to love it on its own merits when I do read it (which will have to be some day on which I am feeling very cheerful indeed and can manage something as sad as this sounds.)

    • Nishita

      @Jenny @ Reading the End It’s not sad as such, but I found it captured the immigrant experience very truthfully. In some places, it’s difficult to read about some terrible things happening, but the overall writing style is matter of fact and even positive.

  • Sounds like parts of this books are just amazing, I like how you did the quotes, too.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_EEI6Da4ah1:disqus Most of this book is amazing. It’s just that the plot doesn’t go anywhere and the ending is abrupt. If you enjoy a plot-based book, then this is not the book for you.

      I used notegraphy for the quotes. Got the idea from Five-Eyed Bookworm’s blog. It’s a neat tool and it’s free 🙂

  • Five-Eyed Bookworm

    Great review. I loved that you expounded on the book’s different sections. I know how it feels to have an ending that doesn’t satisfy but I guess I’ll still read it. I loved A Tale For The Time Being a lot 🙂

    • Nishita

      @fiveeyedbookworm:disqus Yeah, about 80% of the book is great but towards the end, it all just fizzles out. Unfortunately in most cases, the last impression is the one that stays in the mind.

      However this book is really a nice one. I could relate with all those immigrant issues and even some of the games the kids played.

      And did you notice that I stole your notegraphy idea? It’s a pretty cool tool, I need to play around with it more 🙂

      • Five-Eyed Bookworm

        If I get to read it, I’ll let you know if I enjoyed it or not. Oh yes! I saw the quotes! So glad you used the app. How is the app for you? Honestly, I found it to be a little slow and boo for not being able to make notes without an Internet connection.

        • Nishita

          @fiveeyedbookworm:disqus yes, it is a bit slow, but I didn’t mind it. I like the ease of use because I have a bad eye for graphics, and an app which is ready-made is just perfect for me.

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