Man Booker reading 4 - We Need New Names

>> Sunday, October 13, 2013

Man Booker reading 1 - Harvest and The Kills

Man Booker reading 2 - The Luminaries

Man Booker reading 3 - A Tale For The Time Being

After the enjoyable sojourn in Japan and Canada that was A Tale For The Time Being, I decided to move onto Africa, and picked up NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names. It tells the story of a girl called Darling, and starts when she's 10 years old and living in a slum in Zimbabwe circa 2007-08. We see what's going on from her eyes and her friends': the inflation, the elections and the violence that ensues, the expropriation of assets from whites, the epidemic of untreated AIDS. We then follow her as she's sent to the US to live with her aunt, and see her life as she grows up.

It was a very readable book (so much so that I polished it off in a couple of days) and I did mostly like it, but I don't really get what the Man Booker judges thought was so great about it. The writing is nothing particularly impressive. It was trying to do something interesting, gradually changing the register to reflect the narrator's changes in both age and circumstances, but I didn't think it succeeded. At the beginning, especially, it kept pulling me up short with sections which really, really didn't sound like a 10-year-old. I could see the seams a bit too often.

As for the theme and the story, well, it was a bit mixed. The first half, where Darling is still in Zimbabwe, is well done. The device of having a child simply describing what she's seeing, not really understanding it herself, but in a way that it's chillingly clear to the reader exactly what's going on, is a good one, and Bulawayo executes it well. Not extraordinarily well, though, nor is it particularly novel or revolutionary. And then, the second half was a bit of a mess, in my opinion. There were some things in it I thought were fascinating (the immigrant experience is something I'm particularly interested in), but it felt like the author didn't quite know what to concentrate on. She ended up just throwing in as many themes as possible, and as a result, the whole thing felt unfocused and confused. Also, it just stops at what felt like a random point, with no resolution of any kind. Unfortunately, I can't give this more than a B-, and I say unfortunately because I felt there was a lot of unfulfilled potential there.

Tomorrow: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín


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