A child walks past election posters in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2008
A child walks past election posters in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2008 © Reuters

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99/Reagan Arthur, RRP$25, 294 pages

Darling, the protagonist of NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker-shortlisted debut novel, rackets around the Zimbabwean shanty town of Paradise with her friends. Chipo, 11, is mysteriously pregnant, and mute; cheerful Godknows has shorts so thin his buttocks protrude; Sbho is beautiful, Bastard aggressive, and Stina the voice of reason. Even the grim surroundings can’t keep this little gang down for long, as they run riot through the streets, stealing guavas, poking their noses into everything and scrawling on walls.

Gradually we learn more about the shanty-dwellers. They were not born in poverty; their families have been driven from their homes for opposing the regime of Robert Mugabe. The bitterness of the political situation barely impinges on the youngsters. Life, though tough, has a magic and zest, especially when they are playing exciting games such as “Find bin Laden”.

The fulcrum of the novel is the short chapter “How They Left”, which circles around the repeated phrase “leaving in droves” in a poetic incantation: “Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts …”

The second half of the novel sees Darling relocated to America, living first in Detroit and then moving to Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Bulawayo herself was born in Zimbabwe and moved to Kalamazoo when she was 18). While Darling adjusts to her new life with a lack of surface fuss, underneath it she is aware that something has been broken that she will never be able to mend.

There is a narrative arc but little plot, as Darling moves from an appalling situation in which she is happy, to a comfortable situation in which she is unhappy; from the influence of one group of friends to another, shallower group. Sometimes Darling’s story dissolves into a heightened, depersonalised prose; the chapter “How They Lived” is a howl of pain for the de­racinated immigrant, cut off from parents back home and from their own westernised children, who “did not beg us for stories of the land we had left behind. They went to their computers and googled …they looked at us with something between pity and horror and said, Jeez, you really come from there?”

Each chapter focuses on a dramatic incident: the children find a hanged body; NGO workers arrive with food parcels; a murdered activist is buried. When the action moves to America, the incidents are more banal but if anything more disturbing: Darling, now a teenager, watches unpleasant porn with friends, runs wild in the mall or goes to clubs where simulated sex on the dance floor is the norm. And then there’s the food; for a child accustomed to going to bed hungry, American food culture is overwhelming and guilt-inducing.

Darling lives with her Aunt Fostalina, who diets and exercises obse­ssively to workout programmes on the television. “Look at you, bones bones bones. All bones. And for what?” complains Uncle Kojo, who says “there is actually nothing African about a woman with no thighs, no hips, no belly, no behind”. In contrast, Darling’s overweight boy cousin TK scoffs in a single day what would feed three people for two days back home.

Having conjured up a dramatic scene or appalling image, Bulawayo often seems uncertain how to resolve it, and her chapters can end on a trite or bathetic note. Early on, the little Paradise gang decide to remove the baby from Chipo to save her from dying in childbirth. Before the wire coat hanger can be deployed, a neighbour rushes to intervene, whereupon the children, easily distracted, wander off to chase a butterfly.

At the deathbed of an Aids victim, Darling and her friends gather around, excited and confused; then they suddenly begin to sing for him: “there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun”. And when Darling and her American friends accidentally see a horrific video, the chapter ends: “I know, from how we are not looking at each other, that we will never talk about what we have seen.”

Eventually, the book comes to a halt rather than resolves, closing with another grim image. If Bulawayo is better at individual scenes than overall structure, she is at least in full command of her sparkling prose. The passage detailing an American wedding – black groom in need of papers, monstrously obese white bride – is horrible and funny from start to finish. The way Darling’s narrative voice, so vivid in the Zimbabwe scenes, gradually fades to grey, is brilliantly done.

At present the short story seems a more natural fit for Bulawayo’s evident talent, but, as her presence on the Man Booker shortlist suggests, this is a young author to watch.

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