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.
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.
In spite of this book’s drawbacks, I highly recommend it for the wonderful writing and character building. This is Bulawayo’s début novel and keeping that in mind, it’s an astonishingly good read. I look forward to reading more of her books in future as I love her writing style.
Huge thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.