Review: We Need New Names, By NoViolet Bulawayo

Humour in a shanty town? Godknows

Leyla Sanai
Saturday 17 August 2013 18:00 BST

How does a writer tell the story of a traumatised nation without being unremittingly bleak? NoViolet Bulawayo manages it by forming a cast of characters so delightful and joyous that the reader is seduced by their antics at the same time as finding out about the country's troubles.

Bulawayo was born in Zimbabwe, and moved to the US when she was a teenager. Her debut novel is made up of linked stories narrated by a girl called Darling. We first meet her when she's 10, and living in a Zimbabwean shanty town made up of tin shacks, and oxymoronically called Paradise. Bulawayo refuses to play the pity card, and although conditions are grim, Darling and her friends have fun. The names of Darling's pals – Bastard and Godknows are two – are an indicator of the charm and irreverence with which Bulawayo paints these urchins.

Bulawayo artfully lets us know the dark experiences these children have had: Darling describes cake decorations as being "pink, the colour of burn wounds", and guavas as being "like a man's angry fist". Her 11-year-old friend is pregnant. Relatives have been shot dead or injured by mines.

We gradually find out more about the residents' lives. After independence from white colonial rule came disenchantment at Mugabe's corruption. Darling's family were ousted from their house. Her school has closed because teachers have deserted the country. The hospital doctors and nurses are on strike. A witchdoctor does a roaring trade, as does the faith-healer affiliated to the church who cures "possession" by assaulting the affected. Residents become excited when democratic elections are established, but they are doomed to disappointment.

Later, Darling achieves her ambition of moving to the US to live with her aunt. We find out about the life of immigrants: the menial jobs, the obligation to send money home, the impossibility of trips home for the "illegals", their westernised children, who grow up to be distant and dump their parents in nursing homes. Again, this is communicated with a light touch and much drollery.

Bulawayo has created a debut that is poignant and moving but which also glows with humanity and humour.

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