This book has been staring at me from the staff recommendations shelf of my bookstore for so long, I figured it was about time I picked it up. The first half of the book flew by for me, but the second half lagged lethargically, and I found myself struggling a little to hard to reach the finish line.
WE NEED NEW NAMES tells the story of Darling, a young girl who spends the first half of the novel in Paradise, a shantytown in Zimbabwe. She used to live in a middle-class enclave, but following the political unrest and revolutions of her country, her family sought refuge in Paradise. She spends her childhood in Paradise running around and exploring with her ragtag group of friends — beautiful Sbho, loud Bastard, logical Stina, quiet and pregnant Chipo — stealing guavas from the homes in wealthy neighborhoods, climbing trees to watch funeral services, playing games like Find bin Laden, and singing to Lady Gaga songs. Bulawayo writes this part beautifully, and her influence from Chinua Achebe is evident. Darling is a wonderful heroine. She switches from precocious childlike wonder to wisdom beyond her years. She and her friends have been forced to grow up too fast.
As many other reviewers have pointed out, the book struggles in its second half. The episodic nature of Bulawayo’s storytelling worked very well in Zimbabwe, but feels rushed and haphazard once Darling moved to Detroit. Many key moments in Darling’s life I would have liked to see — her goodbyes to her friends and family in Paradise, her plane ride overseas, her first day at an American school — are glossed over or not acknowledged at all. The story shifts (inevitably, perhaps?) to a more typical story of a young immigrant’s struggle to assimilate to American life without losing ties to her home life and country. The story “How They Lived” chronicles this struggle beautifully, but it’s a story that’s been told many times.
I was also confused by how Bulawayo chose to end the story, specifically the last page. That might be my own fault, the significance might just be over my head, but I would have liked a nicer ending than that gory, sad, incident.
This book will definitely be five stars for the right audience, which, unfortunately, isn’t me. It has some beautiful, beautiful passages in it, and some wonderful characters. Bulawayo is an author to watch.