………..In the great timeline of gangs or urchins – running the line between charming and menacing, I think it starts for me with Dodger and the lads, and their mild corruption of Oliver. From there, my time line of gangs and urchins passes through the Double Deckers, Ralph, Jack and Piggy in Lord of the Flies, Danny, Smiffy and Plug in The Bash Street Kids, Chas McGill and his mates in Robert Westall’s “The Machine Gunners” and the menacing Wormsley Common Gang in Graham Green’s short story “The Destructors”.
But not since Oliver and Dodger have I been as enticed and intrigued by a gang of kids as I was by No Violet Bulawayo’s cast of Zimbabwean street urchins! Darling, Bastard, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho and Stina are as good as anything conjured up by Dickens, Golding or Greene in my view! In fact, there’s a wonderfully Dickensian feel to the whole book – it’s subject matter could have been a bit too traumatic, a bit too raw, a bit too “down” in the hands of someone with less skill. It could have been a modern day “Bleak House” – and in some senses it is a pretty bleak story in two pretty bleak settings (Zimbabwe followed by the US). But in fact it’s a wonderful book that pulls your emotions every which way, saved from being overly bleak by a cast of unforgettable characters and infused with a sharply observed humour, some of it very dark, from the first page to the last.
It tells the story of ten year old Darling, the narrator, and her friends on the streets of their Zimbabwean shanty town, the ironically named Paradise. It follows their lives, which are in many ways about as far removed as you can get from the apparently privileged, safe and structured lives that kids in the West enjoy. This is their life after school, not as in something which happens at the end of the school day but as in something which happened after the opportunity to go to school disappears from their lives, thanks to Mugabe’s idea of independence. They roam around, chat, and steal guavas to slate their hunger (regardless of the later consequences for their bowel movements!) They get up to mischief, they run riot, though never really in a way that’s harmful, and they play games that are influenced by their perception of the world beyond Zimbabwe, including “Find Bin Laden” and the “Country Game”. The Country Game is their version of a sort of Last Man Standing and it’s got resonance for both the first part of the book and the second part. For the country the kids most want to be is the USA and the countries they most want to avoid are those in Africa, which have little chance of winning the game – and at the top of the list of these weak countries is their own Zimbabwe.
Yet, even though their lives are so different from the lives of kids in the UK or the US, in another sense there’s such similarities. They experience the same confusing feelings that growing up brings, they still have confused perceptions of adults and adulthood, and they have that healthy mix of curiosity, disregard and disrespect that characterises pre-adolescents and teenagers here. On my way to work in the morning there are always groups of teenage kids on their way to school and regardless of the school they attend they have one thing in common – they are frequently laughing out loud – and the adults around them seem to be looking at them thinking “What the hell are they laughing at?”. It encapsulates that gap between childhood and adulthood for me and it is a bit like that for Darling and her friends. So the lives of Darling and her friends on the streets of Zimbabwe are a series of adventures, relationships, struggles, tensions, imaginings and frustrations. That’s one of the joys of this first part of the story – this is a story of kids growing up and in some senses it could be anywhere. There’s the pent-up aggression in Bastard where we get a glimpse of the man he might become in the boy before us on the page, the detached mirth and sheer irreverence of Godknows and the passive accepting of fate in the pregnant, child rape-victim, Chipo.
But of course, for all the innocence in Darling’s story on the surface, it isn’t a straightforward, this-could-be-anywhere coming-of-age drama – how could it be – for this is Zimbabwe. It’s a place in the grip of tyranny, aching for change, abandoned to the mercy of Mugabe’s henchman and even more dangerous uncontrolled hordes hell-bent on revenge, a place that screams “Madness!”. And it’s all shot through with the sinister menace of Mugabe himself. There is this tension and undercurrent of evil, of almost unimaginable cruelty that unfolds as Darling narrates the story of her family and of the wider group of villagers – it’s a harrowing tale. But it’s so brilliantly done that it never feels like heavy-handed tub-thumping politicising or obvious moralising. As you read it you don’t just feel indignant about how these people are treated, for indignation isn’t enough. It’s a story that quite literally twists your gut in places – at times I could hardly bare to read the words on the page. I had that knot in my stomach and my teeth on edge – if there is such a thing as the literary equivalent of a fork being scraped excruciatingly across the surface of a plate, then this is it!
The second half of the story follows Darling to the US – to live with her Aunt Fostalina and the detached, rootless African immigrant communities of “Destroyed, Michigan”, as she had so quaintly described it when she dreamt of what life there would be like. And of course, like so much of life, the reality of America never comes close to matching that perfect America of David Beckham and Obama and guaranteed riches that Darling had imagined. This is perhaps the more shocking half of the book in some ways. Darling adapts to life in America because that’s what kids do – but she still sees through it, and underneath the veneer to the grim lives the African communities lead. As she adapts to America she drifts from Zimbabwe, and from her mother and from Bastard, Chipo, Godknows and the others she has left behind. But in her heart, Zimbabwe is still there. This bit of the book really chimed with me. As a part of the perpetual Scottish diaspora, I thought NoViolet Bulawayo got this absolutely right – no matter how poor your origins, no matter how long you’ve been away, and no matter how much you adapt to where you go, it’s still home and it’s pull on you never ceases. Perhaps the second half of the book is the most illuminating for it lays bare what life in the West is really like. It might not have the stalking menace of Mugabe’s madmen, it might not be in the grip of an amoral, psychotic despot like Mugabe, but it’s still fraught with danger, riven with inequalities and perhaps as guilty as Mugabe is of dressing up what it offers as something much better than it really is. If you called it “Paradise” too, it’d be no less an ironic name than it is for the shanty town of Darling’s family.
We Need New Names is a wonderful read. It will move you, amuse you, anger you, sadden you, confuse you and tease you in equal measure from the first page to the last. This is a story and a cast of characters that, once you’ve read about them, you won’t forget in a hurry. It didn’t win the Booker Prize, though for me it’s certainly as good as the two other Booker shortlist books I’ve read, Colm Toibin’s ‘Testament of Mary’ and Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale For The Time Being’. But don’t let the fact that it didn’t win put you off this book if you are in any way tempted to read it – for it’s fabulous. And if you love Dickens, and are drawn to the way within his pages he speaks for those who most need someone to speak on their behalf, then I’d be confident that you’ll find that “We Need New Names” is a bloody masterpiece!
Below is a short Guardian video in which Lisa Allardice argues that this book should win the Booker (it didn’t but she still does a much better job of reviewing it than I ever could!)