The author of We Need New Names chose her own new name for her writing. ‘NoViolet’ is a tribute to Elizabeth Tshele’s mother Violet, who died when Elizabeth was only 18 months old.
She also chose interesting names for some of the characters in this book set in Zimbabwe. The story is a first person narrative by Darling, beginning at about age 10. Her close friends include Bastard, Chipo, Godknows. Her grandma is Mother of Bones. They live in Paradise; in the first chapter Hitting Budapest (which won the Caine African Short Story contest a couple of years ago), Darling and her friends are going to the rich area (village? neighbourhood?) of Budapest. They are looking for guavas to steal and eat (it reminded me as a kid sneaking into the nearby church yard with a couple of friends to steal crabapples from the trees. Somehow the tart fruits tasted better when the adrenaline was surging and the heart was palpitating with fear.) Their antics are brought up short by a white woman who calls to them from her house, and then comes outside to talk with them and take photos. The kids are uncomfortable — who is this person? The peculiar encounter is described with just the right level of unease, of a bit of a culture tangle. The shocking ending to that chapter sends a warning about what may come later.
Darling is written as a strong dynamic voice. She’s not a creation; she is there, existing, right there on the page, talking to you. She’s tough, she’s funny, she’s opinionated. Especially powerful are scenes where Darling and her friends meet up with Westerners, usually expats or from NGOs, and later in America. The familiar tv scene of the NGO truck arriving in some African village to dispense aid and goodies to throngs of shouting black kids is turned inside out, or flipped around, and it is funny as well as unsettling and thought provoking.
The novel is a collection of discrete events, almost linked short stories. Many of the chapters stand on their own. As the character gets a bit older, several short chapters become more introspective, and serve more as the role of chorus.
There’s a lot here — coming of age, colonialism, AIDS, immigration, assimilation — but somehow it knits wells together, and Darling’s voice always stays strong.
I hope to see this one on the Booker shortlist.