Thursday 10 October 2013

Counting Down to the Man Booker: Day Two - We Need New Names

And here we arrive on day two of the count down - five days to go until the announcement! Today our review of choice is:

E said: I didn't have very high expectations of this, as the only person I know who has read it was pretty negative, saying it floated between "compelling prose and mundane drivel!" This is fairly damning, so I went in expecting to wade through it as fast as possible so I could get onto the next one.

However, I didn't feel like that at all. From very early on, I felt like I wanted to keep going - not simply to finish it, but because I wanted to know what happened, I wanted to learn more. It tells the story of "Darling," born in Zimbabwe who moved to America when she was about 10-11. As NoViolet Bulawayo (and what an exciting name!) was born in Zimbabwe and emigrated herself, I wonder how much of this was autobiographical. The opening chapters, set in Darling's hometown of "Paradise" (incongruously named, as it is a shanty town) are particularly vivid. There were a couple of scenes that really stuck with me, the images really blazed in my head - a woman hanging from a tree who knew she had "the sickness," children attempting to get rid of Chino - another child's - pregnancy because it would mean she'd die, but having no idea how to, squatting in the bushes after poaching guava from the neighbouring town of more wealthy Budapest, the haunting image of Darling's father returning from South Africa, a dying man, nothing but "length and bones. He is rough skin."

The title, "We Need New Names" has many references within the text. It is a direct quote from the time that the girls try to "[get] rid of Chino's stomach once and for all." In order to be doctors, Sbho announces that they need new names - christening themselves Dr Roz, Dr Bullet, Patient and Dr Cutter. But there are many things in this book that need new names. There is a thread running through of the incongruity of naming - the shanty town named Paradise, Budapest in the middle of Zimbabwe, Darling's friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Forgiveness and Stina), and then these names that set them apart when she moves to America. Names are powerful in Paradise - they quote the names of American celebrities like Gods, and in America a man from Zimbabwe retains his connection to his children and grandchildren (whom has he never met) through naming: "He has named all his children and grandchildren... each name carefully thought out and finally given over the phone.
        It's how I get to touch them, Tshaka Zulu said to me one day... You see, every time they are called by name and they answer, I am the invisible hand touching them and calling them my own..."

In contrast, America seems less concerned with naming, apart from in the way that they may alienate people. To them, Africa is one country; they are barely interested in the separation of different places, the distinctions between different peoples. Names
are important: Bulawayo seems to stress this, and the loss of identity comes partly from the stripping of their names. Darling grows farther and farther away from Paradise, promising to return to visit, whilst knowing that she never will. The gulf has grown too wide, and if she leaves, she will never be able to return because she has no papers. She misses her old friends, but feels apart from them, their lives have moved on. Chino's daughter is named after her, but she almost forgets her existence. It is touching and poignant.

The writing style is fairly fluid, not quite stream of consciousness, but there are times it feels almost like that. The writing fits the age of Darling, and there are wonderful flowing sentences such as "Then we are rushing then we are running we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing" which conveys the sense of movement and urgency and excitement through its fluidity and lack of punctuation; it seems almost onomatopoeic. The one thing I do wonder about is the lack of speech marks for dialogue. I suppose it may have slowed down the narrative, and seemed less true to Darling's voice (the story is told in first person), but I'm not sure that either of these explanations are entirely true. If so, then it seems unnecessary to me; I don't mind unconventional use of grammar, but if the reasoning doesn't seem evident to me, then it seems annoying. This is somewhere in between: I think that I can see the justification, but I doubt its validity.

It certainly feels like a debut novel - Bulawayo has tried to include absolutely everything in it. You can sense her youth, her vigour, her need to speak, to be heard - and she has tried to cram everything into one book. This makes it seem a little clumsy at points, but the raw enthusiasm has a certain sense of endearment to it as well. It is not as polished as most "literary" books, but it has its own charm.

Overall, the book is poignant, nostalgic and ultimately sad. Darling loses her culture, her sense of being, in America and, although she discovers and creates a new one, the loss is raw and real. I think this is a story that needs to be told; I wanted more, I wanted to know more about Zimbabwe, about the feelings of loss, of not fitting in, the guilt, the estrangement. I wanted to understand. When I reached the end, I could happily have gone on reading - and what more can you want in a book?

Will it win the Booker? No - it isn't really Booker material. It's not literary enough, it's too wild and inconsistent. But, either way, I am glad to have read it.

J said: We Need New Names is a splendid, colourful, wild, angry and unsettling book.
It comes in two very different sections, the first as a young child in Zimbabwe, where life is violent, cheap and precarious, and then in Michigan (the transition is not told, and this was a little frustrating) from the age of perhaps 12 to 16. I found it easy to read and fairly compelling, poignant and interestingly informative.

Zimbabwe is a place we hear about in the news in sudden bursts, with nothing between. It is mostly portrayed as a basket case of post-colonial mismanagement and elderly dictatorship with a suffering population. We also regularly come across Zim ex-pats, who seem to be pretty well-educated, and not to match the news stories (how should someone who has escaped from a violent unsafe country seem?). So one of the things I liked about WNNM was the opportunity to get a detailed picture of what one of those lives might have been like.

NoViolet Bulaweyo seems to have written in a great hurry, blurting out what she had to say. Perhaps one of the most telling chapters is near the end, when she speaks in the voice of all the collective displaced of Africa, homeless and yearning and misunderstood in the rich West. It is a chapter that isn't directly part of the rest of the story she tells, but the emotion in it, bitterness, self-pity and perhaps also blame, is I think what underlies this story and the way she tells it.

The language reflects the mood, and carried me along at great speed.

I shall be interested to see how NoViolet writes when she is telling a different story. 

A said: My good friend Richard disparagingly described this at a book club meeting as a novel by a girl who grew up in Zimabawe and then moved to the USA talking about a girl growing up in Zimbabwe who moved to the USA... He felt he had little else to say!

It is true that this is what it is entirely about - the oxymoronically named shanty town of Paradise where Darling grows up playing extraordinarily named games amongst deprivation, HIV, incest and rape is the story of Zimbabwe through a child's eyes. It's a violent and ulimately sad but not self pitying depiction of the country and its huge contrast with American culture. 

Its erratically written and feels hasty as if the author has a childhoods worth of specific experiences and stories she has to tell and she must convey them all in a single novel. Some of the book feels cursory and rushed, and each chapter has a slightly different voice and feel. However the voice of Darling is believable and I idid feel compelled to read to the very end. A piece of lasting and crafted literature it is not so I don't feel it will win the booker but was a brave choice to put on the short list.

See our previous review here:
Day One - Testament of Mary  

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