Trying to relate to children

We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo

Ten-year old Darling lives in Zimbabwe, a country that’s been ravaged by 30 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule. In the book’s opening scene, Darling and her friends are playing games and trying to offset their hunger with a few stolen guavas, the same activities that fill most of their days now that all their teachers have left the country and there is no school to attend. The military police have bulldozed the children’s former homes, leaving them in a shantytown of tin shacks. The first half of the story takes place in the Zimbabwe of Darling’s childhood while the second half concerns her immigration to the United States as an adolescent.

Darling’s transition from Zimbabwe to America is the clear through line of the story and we watch as her survival skills adapt to her different environments. But by the book’s end, I just didn’t find myself all that connected to her as a character. It felt like the places she inhabited overshadowed and shaped her more than any internal dreams or characteristics.

My sense of distance from this character may have had to do with a couple of storytelling devices that tend not to resonate with me. First, I’m not a huge fan of adult stories told from the point of view of children (I know, this probably isn’t a huge shock to some of you). I’m sure if I really wracked my brain, I could come up with some examples that defy this generalization, but broadly speaking, I just find the child narrator irritating. Now in this case, Darling is definitely not irritating, but I found myself wanting more than what her 10-year-old perspective could give me.

And then there’s the issue of plot, or lack thereof. Speaking broadly again, I usually like a lot of plot – I want to be propelled forward wondering what happens next and why. I want to be surprised and manipulated by characters’ behavior and motivations. (Yes, I am currently catching up on Homeland, thanks for asking.) That doesn’t mean every story I read must be action-packed—some of the most interesting plots for me are interpersonal—but if the story’s events aren’t going to keep me flipping the pages, then I need something else, typically thoroughly-wrought characters whose tiniest choices will worry, please or surprise me.

Bulawayo’s writing style is more charcoal sketches than oil on canvas; she draws the outline and gives us the pertinent facts, but she allows the reader to flesh out the scenes and characters for themselves. This is a style that can be very effective but in this particular book, there was just a little too much left on the table for me.

We Need New Names was released last year around the same time as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, a novel to which it was often compared because they share some similar themes (although Americanah’s protagonist is from Nigeria). While they may share some surface similarities, the two books are told in very different ways and the style of Americanah suits me more. In fact, Americanah was one of my favorite books this year; it had all those thick, heavy brushstrokes and deep, rich textures that kept me up late flipping the pages and wondering what would happen next.

Speaking of next: David Mitchell’s latest, baby! Yes!

Read 5 comments

  1. “Room” by Emma Donoghue was readable (and wonderful) because of the child’s narration. Did the point of view change in the latter half to the mother’s? I seem to remember the reader got a good idea of how hard the adjustment to freedom was. I think that part was told by the mom, but I don’t have the book in front of me. Thanks for the think, Tina! Your blog wakes this noodle up.

  2. Abby, I wouldn’t call Holden Caulfield a child! He’s an angst-ridden teen on the cusp of adulthood. It’s been so long since I’ve read Catcher in the Rye that perhaps I’m forgetting things. Doesn’t Holden tell the story from the future looking back?

    • Tina

      I was waiting for someone to bring up Holden … and Stuart’s got it. Some of my favorite narrators are teenagers (Holden) or adults narrating from the POV of their teenage self (Lee in Prep). By child, I’m thinking of the under 13 set. And one further clarification: there are a lot of amazing books told by children for children, I’m specifically ragging on adult books narrated by kids. And yes, Holden is narrating from a year in the future (he’s in a mental hospital telling the story of how he got there).

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