We are in Africa, more specifically in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo’s homeland. The voice is that of ten-year old Darling, running from her shanty town to steal guavas from the gardens of the rich; the plot covers (among other things) civil war, rebellion, corrupt governments, immigration, female genital mutilation and the casting out of demons.
The history of Zimbabwe is vast, sprawling, complicated and bloody. We need new names is a child-voiced first person narrative in which any broader perspective is necessarily limited to the child’s understanding. Child-voiced narratives can be very effective – in Rome, for example, Matthew Kneale uses the child’s voice to signpost the mother’s mental breakdown. It works beautifully, because the adult reader is vouchsafed an understanding beyond that of the child narrator. In We need new names, however, Darling is both narrator and interpreter of the troubled country in which she lives. This limits the degree to which the reader is able to engage with the setting, or to develop an understanding of the world in which Darling is growing up.
If John le Carré is right that the cat sat on the mat is not a story, but that the cat sat on the dog’s mat is, then this story only really starts when Darling moves to America, which doesn’t happen until way into the second half of the novel. Before that, the reader is simply being shown the cat sitting on the mat. It’s a feisty cat, and the mat is interestingly patterned, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But I know the temptation to tell the same story more than once because you love the way you’ve done it. I can’t tell you what it cost me to decide between the eggs and the oranges in The Ship (bear with me, only eighteen months until publication). The guavas in We need new names were sufficient; successive events repeated, rather than developed, the plot.
Very occasionally, Bulawayo lets Darling’s voice drop in favour of laments in the third person for lives not lived, for lives denied, for the people who have been stifled and crushed, and it is in these laments that her writing shines. These all-too-infrequent interludes bear comparison with Alan Paton’s transcendent Cry the Beloved Country, and with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Indeed, ‘when things fell apart’ is used frequently to summarize Zimbabwe’s history. But both Paton and Achebe’s novels offer a deeper understanding of, respectively, apartheid and colonialism. Darling’s voice is vibrant, the plot colourful, the package attractive. But the substance, when it comes, highlights the lack of it elsewhere.