I received a giant stack of books from some very generous soon-to-be in-laws for Christmas and wasted no time diving in. The first book I pulled from the mix was We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which I’ve been coveting ever since reading the first two pages in a bookstore a few months ago. I tore through the novel, which is narrated by a girl named Darling. She is ten years old and living in Zimbabwe at the start of the novel, older and living in Michigan by the end.  Her voice is immediate and unflinching. Early in the story, Darling and the pack of children she runs with come across a woman hanging from a tree. Entire novels have been built on moments like that, but in this one, it is mentioned almost in passing. Just the way Darling absorbs that sight and moves on tells the reader right away so much about her life and the lives of her friends.

we need new names

In the first half of the book, the Zimbabwe half, there is a pregnant eleven year old, militias, crushing poverty, AIDS, out-of-control church elders, starvation, aide workers snapping poor children photos, and yet the story isn’t depressing. Darling doesn’t elicit pity. She’s self-possessed but not precocious–she seems like an actual kid, not a figment of literature.

When the action shifts across the world to Detroit, and to Darling’s new struggles living with extended family and trying to navigate a world where it snows, where there is enough to eat, but where she is brutally teased for being African and loses her grip on what had been extremely close bonds with her friends, the book becomes harder. Not harder to read or enjoy, but harder to handle on an emotional level, for me at least. The thought that in some ways we can do worse by kids here in this country than they do by themselves in a place where they have no access to essentials like food is pretty deranged.

There is a really poetic chapter in the middle of the book that is told in a sort of out-of-time, out-of-body omniscient voice; it uses the phrase “things fall apart” which was a nice reference, I thought, to what is probably the work of African literature most read in the United States (that’s my unsubstantiated guess). There is another similarly out-of-time chapter a little later on about what becomes of African immigrants as they grow older–it was desperately sad and beautiful.

But don’t read this book for the politics, or even the story–read it for Darling’s voice. It is singular, beautiful and unforgettable.