For the past six weeks, I’ve been shadowing The Man Booker prize with some lovely pupils at Wellington College. Most of us didn’t manage to get through all six shortlisted novels, but we made a good stab at the list and certainly dipped into all of them. Giving them Catton’s 800 page The Luminaries as the first novel (Robert Mcfarlane referred to reading the hardback as providing a full upper-body work out), was perhaps a little misguided, though at least it set the pace – and made reading The Testament of Mary a breeze. I am currently finishing Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, probably my second favourite.
My favourite was No Violet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. I knew it wouldn’t win. It isn’t ‘literary’ enough, the plot isn’t sufficiently complicated and layered, it is a little too easy to read… And yet, it is the novel that I most enjoyed and would most liked to have written.
I feel its weaknesses. The Zimbabwe half and the American half feel a little disjointed. The ending also fizzles out, for my taste at least. But there are two things that make it stand out as special: its distinctive voice, that of the little girl, Darling, and its fresh language.
I have a passion for novels that use child narrators to observe the adult world. Their incomplete and unconditioned perspective helps us to see situations with fresh eyes, especially situations that have grown haggard through the voices of grey-suited politicians and news readers. Children also have a gift for juxtaposing humour and tragedy. In the first chapter, Darling and her friends see a woman hanging from a tree – a few moments later, in a wonderfully pragmatic manner, they take her shoes and, ‘then we are rushing, then we are running, then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing.’ They are not callous, they simply haven’t been trained into false sentimentality. And their present needs – whether this be having shoes or playing their next game – are more urgent.
As their language is still evolving, the words children use to describe the adult world are also fresh and uncluttered by over-reflective cliches. They grasp for words and phrases we wouldn’t think of using and yet often, these words end up being more vivid and accurate than those an adult might use. For example, when Darling describes her mother and a man having sex, she says: ‘The bed is shuffling like a train taking them somewhere important that needs to be reached fast.’
Although I enjoyed the Zimbabwe chapters more than the American, the latter are also beautifully written: Bulawayo’s humour and lyricism, and her fantastic similes, bring to life the immigrant experience, the sensations of walking through an American mall and the reality of living with an uncle suffering from a mental illness.
Like I said, We Need New Names wasn’t ever going to be a front runner, but that comes down to the high brow nature of the prize, rather than to the quality of the novel: this story is fresh and beautiful and Darling’s voice is one that stays with me. I can’t wait to see how Bulawayo develops as a writer.