This is a Booker Prize shortlisted title, which I am not usually very good at keeping up with, so I am feeling a warm glow of virtue having read this. But part of the warm glow comes from the book itself. Our heroine, Darling, has a huge amount of warmth, life and energy despite her rather grim home in a Zimbabwean shanty town called Paradise by its inhabitants. Like most people in Europe and America my main sources of information on life in Africa have been tv and the papers. In recent years, however, I have been working on the campus of Bradford University where I have been priviledged to meet and get to know customers from a number of African countries. This book seems to encapsulate the positivity and despair of the continent.
We first meet Darling when she is ten and her life, although bleak by our own terms, is full of friends and games. So, the games have names like ‘Finding Bin Laden’ or mimic terrifying adult experiences (abortion and murder) which no-one would wish children to have any knowledge of and the friends have names like Bastard and Godknows and one is pregnant at 11 after being raped by a relative but these are most definitely children. They are led by their stomachs and have an oddly naive view of the events they see but, like children who are old before their time the world over, they have a lot to teach us.
Darling grows up during the course of the book. A little during what are probably the violent 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, a little more when her previously absent father returns to die from AIDS and a whole lot more when she travels to America to live with her Aunt Fostalina. I think that the half of the book set in the States is particularly good – we are prone to looking down on Africa (to the extent that we can often forget it is not one country but a vast continent with a huge variety of different lives being lived in it) and assuming that they need to improve, to reach our own level of sophistication, our own standard of living. One review I have seen of this book describes Darling’s life in Africa as a place where ‘food is a luxury, people die of ‘the sickness’ (i.e. AIDS) and children get pregnant’ – to my way of thinking the life she has moved to in the States is potentially not far removed from this. The book, reflecting Darling’s increasing maturity, is bluntly descriptive of what life is like for illegal immigrants. It is, all things considered, not much better than the life left behind with the added disadvantage, for the previously law-abiding, of becoming a criminal.
This book is a lot funnier than I have probably made it sound. Quite a lot of emphasis is put on the power of language – particularly one’s mother tongue – and NoViolet Bulawayo seems to have a great way with words. This book is well worth reading if you enjoy a well-written story and if you are interested in understanding how different other people’s lives can be.