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We Need New Names, By NoViolet Bulawayo

Born to freedom but raised to struggle, Zimbabwe's youth inspire a debut that blends wit and pain

The Caine Prize for African Writing has always been a good identifier of talent, and NoViolet Bulawayo, a writer of Zimbabwe's post-Independence "born-free" generation, has delivered on the promise shown in her 2011 prize-winning story "Hitting Budapest". Her first novel is a story of Now, dealing with some of the dreams and nightmares spawned by Zimbabwe's political woes.

Bulawayo immerses us in the world of 10-year-old Darling and her friends Sbho and Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Stina – a child's -eye view of a world where there is talk of elections and democracy but where chaos and degradation become everyday reality, where death and sickness and the threat of violence lurk. Memories remain of a time Before… before houses were bulldozed and people had to live in tin shacks in a shanty town misleadingly named Paradise, trying to hold on to dignity while families fracture.

Yet there is no shortage of laughter as the children invent a life of adventure, mischief and make-believe, stealing guavas and playing "Find bin Laden" or the country-game: "Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland... Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?"

For Darling, at least, a better future seems about to unfold: she is sent to join an aunt working in America (in "Destroyed michygen"). However, rather than a new paradise, Darling finds a land of coldness – "I mean, coldness that makes like it wants to kill you, like it's telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from." Food can never fix the hunger for home.

This heartrending dilemma of displacement is powerfully summed up: "When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands… Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong... knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth."

Adjusting to adolescent life in the US inevitably brings cultural collisions and awakenings, including a palpable loss of innocence when she is drawn into watching unspeakable internet porn. At points, the story could be read as a case-study in alienation and assimilation. Nevertheless, most affecting of all is the early intimate depiction of Darling and her sub-teen gang, with their speaking eyes and quick-witted banter - a wonderfully original set of characters whom Bulawayo allows a convincing combination of innocence and knowingness. Their indomitable energy, spirit and hope, often in the face of truly painful odds, are just memorable.

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