I wanted to like We Need New Names more than I did. It is about an interesting topic and is vividly written, sometimes with striking images. But like some of the commenters on Goodreads, I agree that it seems to be trying to deal with too many issues at once. Somehow, I did not get as involved as I expected.
Darling is a tween girl running with her friends from Paradise, a slum of tin shacks in Zimbabwe. They spend their time playing games and stealing guavas from a richer neighborhood called Budapest. Darling’s father has been away in South Africa for years, trying to find work, but they haven’t heard from him or received any money. While Darling’s mother is traveling to sell things, Darling stays with her grandmother, Mother of Bones.
Eventually we learn that Darling’s family used to live a middle class life in a brick house, but the government knocked down their neighborhood. So, they came to live in Paradise.
Bulawayo’s tale is focused enough until, after a vote against the corrupt government results in retaliation, things become too dangerous and she is sent to live with her aunt in Detroit. Perhaps the last third of the novel reflects Darling’s confusion as a teenager, but it packs in scenes of typical teenage years conflated with growing awareness of issues back home, the disconnected feelings of immigrants, the war in Afghanistan, some sneers at the U.S., and her own homesickness. At some times it feels as if Bulawayo thinks America should be responsible for the welfare of all nations, which it can’t possibly do.