Darling is an imaginative, intelligent and constantly hungry child living in Zimbabwe, in a tin house where the bed is made out of a mattress stuffed with old cloth and chicken’s feathers. Her commentary on life is matter-of-fact and astute, yet funny in a precocious child kind of way. Darling’s dream is to live in America, ‘My America’, she calls it, and imagines plentiful food, clothes, big beautiful houses and a Lamborghini that she will surely drive once she gets there. Her friends with Chekhovian names like Bastard and Godknows dream too – like Darling, they want to leave their ghetto called Paradise and become ‘real’ people – but for now they spend their days stealing guavas from the gardens in the wealthy Budapest, playing Find Bin Laden and Country-Game, and watching the adults try to cope with the demise of their country.
Eventually Darling gets a chance to realise her dream when her aunt Fostalina, brings the girl to Michigan, or DestroyedMichygen, as Darling and her friends call it. But America is not what she expected. Homesick and frustrated at not being able to visit her friends and family in Zimbabwe – Darling’s visa has by now expired and she is an illegal, just like her aunt and uncle – the teenager watches her dream dissipate into the reality of low paid jobs, community college and now also pressure from those she left behind. Pressure to write, pressure to telephone, pressure that Aunt Fostalina is under to send money home. Life is not easier here at all, Darling starts to realise. Not everyone is rich, and most immigrants work very hard, and not as doctors and lawyers but as cleaners, packers and nursing homes staff.
Writer Helon Habila has made an interesting point in his review of We Need New Names about the seeming anxiety of the author to cover every topic considered ‘African’, be it genocide, Aids, political violence or child abuse, all in the first hundred or so pages before Darling’s arrival to America. Even Darling’s poetic, original voice does not change the fact that the long list of ‘African issues’ distracts from the real story, even if just for the mere reason that one would need a much longer, and a very different kind of novel to cover them all. Still, it is the second part of the novel – the American part – that jars the most. As Darling finds America bland and disappointing, her voice changes to that of a critical, sharp teenager whose sense of wonder slowly turns into sarcasm, and the ending is somehow more bleak than all the horrors of Darling’s previous life. Her impressions of America are far from favourable, and at times far-fetched. It is, after all, hard to believe that a girl who sang Lady Gaga’s songs with her friends in Paradise, has never heard of aerobics and is shocked by her aunt’s at-home workouts.
I too had a list of things I found strange or different when I first came to Britain from Russia at the age of eighteen but even a teenager must realise that no country is just one thing, and no people are just bad or just good. In Darling’s eyes, America is fat, cold, obsessed with looks and inaccessible to the poor. An African man must be marrying a fat white girl purely for the papers, and a pretty rich girl Kate has no right to be depressed and bulimic just because her boyfriend has dumped her – for how can she really suffer if she has not lived through real hunger? This one-sided view lets both Darling and the novel down.
We Need New Names dips and rises, stronger in some places, weaker in others. Darling’s adventures in Zimbabwe are fascinating because of her great storytelling but seem a little Hollywood-like , as if intended to please an audience. Her American life is as disappointing to read about as it must be for her to live through. The overall theme is not that new or original but there are still many parts that are beautifully written, and the chapter called How They Lived is a standalone cry of pain that sums up a lot of Darling’s new experiences. The author’s love for her country is evident in Darling’s nostalgia for her childhood, no matter how difficult it had been. It is just a shame that the love for her culture prevents her from falling in love with her new surroundings – it is hard if not impossible to survive just on nostalgia.
Any Cop?: We Need New Names is a nostalgic story of shattered dreams that at times loses itself in too many socio-political issues.