On the jacket:
From Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to the United States – a poignant novel of gaining a life and losing a country.
'To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, and not even this one we live in - who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?' Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn't all bad, though. There's mischief and adventure, games of finding bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices. They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges - for her and also for those she's left behind.
Man Booker Prize nominated novel We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is a beautiful read. Yes, beautiful. I chose this adjective very carefully. Because that's how the narration is.
The story is narrated by 10-year-old Darling, who stayed in Paradise. Along with her, are her friends Godknows, Chipo, Sbho, Stina and Bastard ... all of them living in a poverty ridden part of Paradise. The story deals with some very sensitive, depressing issues, let me warn you. There is a lot of innocence in this story, it's about children technically. But some instances will throw you off guard. Like when Darling's father is back home and she is angry with him for leaving & then returning with sickness, her friends understand he is dying of AIDS. The bit where they talk openly about death, and then there is a small song - my heart clenched with pain.
Within the book, Darling grows up to be a teenager, towards the end. She had once wanted to travel all the way to the US, and she had achieved it. But she is an outsider.
The book grows on you. I am sure this wouldn't have happened if the narrator was an adult. Darling, with all her innocense, attention to detail - describing everything she observed, sharing stories about her friends, telling the reader about how her friends and she go to steal Guavas and what else do they do!
At some point, when Darling has started living in the US with her aunt, and is trying to fit in, her story matches with everyone who has gone to the west to study or earn - trying to fit in. Or as Darling said, "“We hid our real names, gave false ones when asked. We built mountains between us and them, we dug rivers, we planted thorns- we had paid so much to be in America and we did not want to lose it all.”
This is a debut novel, but no where did it feel so.
[This review is for Random House India. The opinions are strictly my own and not been written under any obligation.]