When a book is shortlisted for an award, the fact that it is good is known. A jury of critics wouldn’t select the book for an award if there wasn’t some facet of it that was worth the nomination. An award-shortlisted book makes me ask the questions, “Is the nomination deserving?” and “What was that facet which helped it get the nomination?” Sometimes, both questions feel the same. After all, one might say that it was that facet which made it deserving of a nomination, right?
NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut book is titled “We Need New Names”. Frankly speaking, it was the title that made me take the book rather than the book being shortlisted for the Man Booker 2013 Award. At first glance, the cover doesn’t appeal to me much, and it feels very muddled. Yet I pursue the book, not judging by the cover. Discussing the book with other book lovers as I read, I hear the word memoir crop up. It makes me see this book in a new light, wondering if it is.
The narrative is simple. It’s short, but not sweet. It speaks to me, like it is meant to. The voice is of a young girl, ten years old, and her world with her friends. The characters names are quite interesting, because it gives me a sense of carelessness. As in the world around them doesn’t care what they are called, as long as they are called something. But why can’t this narrative be sweet, I wonder? Isn’t that an age where sweetness is still present in abundance? Why not get the reader into that feature of the character? It’s a question that I haven’t found the answer to yet. The best I could come up with was that sweetness wasn’t part of that world. Sounds strange when I tell it out loud, but what I feel strange might still be true. From the group of six, one little girl is pregnant. NoViolet starts to narrate this world then and there, a hard world, one that I’ve only read of.
That hard world being brought to life in words is possibly the facet that helped it get the nomination. It’s not absolutely easy to picturize in your head what this world of Darling’s looks like, but that’s because the world is hard to live in, and the slow, measured tone of the author actually puts that difficulty across. It makes the read heavy. Through the narration and the plot, we’re taken to that hard world… from plucking a few guavas, to seeing death and even having no pity for the dead, and an escape from the land you were born because it just didn’t feel like you were meant to be there. Unfortunately, the point that makes this book a deserving nomination is the point that also makes it quite dull. Oxymoronic, I agree, but it’s true. In an attempt to bring out that harsh world well, the author ends up putting a lot of things in the story, and dilutes the plot to an extent. Too many little things, rather than one or two things in focus.
A book with beautiful, touching narration that takes us into the world called Paradise, with questions on a sense of belonging and survival. Yes, the nomination was deserving, and congratulations to the author on a fine debut.
IN A GIST:
Positives: Poignant, beautiful narrative which makes me ask questions, interesting character names and plot.
Negatives: Muddled cover design, Interest wavers as I enter the second half of the book, mostly because of the heavy theme.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Tshele is a Zimbabwean author who writes under the nom-de-plume NoViolet Bulawayo. She has won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Hitting Budapest about a gang of street children in a Zimbabwean shantytown. Her novel entitled We Need New Names was released in 2013 and shortlisted for the Man Booker award.
Title: We Need New Names
Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
Publishers: Chatto & Windus / Random House India
Price: INR. 599
(Dec 31st, 2013)