The backstory: We Need New Names, the first novel by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.
The basics: We Need New Names is the coming of age story of Darling. The novel begins in Zimbabwe when Darling is ten years old. She knows she will soon be able to escape her troubled country and go to the U.S., where her aunt lives, but little else in this novel is so simple.
My thoughts: Child narrators are hit or miss for me, and I don't have a consistent opinion about them. Instead, I feel as I do about almost any staple in literature: when it's done well, I love it. When it's not done well, I don't. In this case, I am of two minds about Darling's narration. Admittedly, I know little about the history of Zimbabwe, so it was helpful to have a child guide me through some of it. When done well, a child's narration enhances a story rather than detracts from it; it's a lens into the world, but the reader can realize things deeper than the child does. While Bulawayo attempted these moments, I don't think they were completely successful.
I loved the idea of this book more than its execution. It's clear, from both the description of the novel and Darling's narration from the beginning, that she is going to the United States. There's even a plane on the U.S. cover. The anticipation of this shift made me restless at the amount of time spent in Zimbabwe. I don't mean to diminish the complicated history and hardship, but Darling's reflection of it soon seemed redundant, and I was eager for Darling to escape. Once she does leave, I found myself much more fascinated by her observations. Her aunt lives in Detroit, and Darling experiences culture shock in numerous ways. Her transformation and commentary are intriguing, and time seemed to pass more quickly after she arrives in the U.S. She was more fascinating as a teenager than a ten-year-old.
Audio thoughts: Robin Miles narrates with a deeply accented voice, and it took me awhile to get used to it. I had to concentrate quite hard early on. At one point, I caught myself realizing she had shifted into a non-accented voice for a certain character, and I didn't immediately realize it, so I did get used to it. Over the course of the book, her accent choice grew on me, as Darling's accent abates slowly when she makes it to the U.S. This subtle transformation enhanced my enjoyment of Darling's transformation.
The verdict: We Need New Names is an intriguing coming of age story, but its strength is in Darling's acclimation to the United States. I wish that geographic transition would have happened earlier in the novel, or that more would have happened in Zimbabwe. These two parts of the novel felt out of balance, but beneath these issues of balance and pacing is a promising young writer.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (audio: 4 out of 5)
Length: 305 pages (9 hours and 4 minutes)
Publication date: May 21, 2013
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Need New Names from Amazon (Kindle edition.)
Want more? Visit NoViolet Bulawayo's website and like her on Facebook.
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!