There has been a lot of love for this debut novel. It’s averaging 4 stars on Amazon and Goodreads, the critics reviews were mostly rapturous love letters harping on about the distinctive voice Bulawayo had created in the ten year old narrator, and how gorgeous and touching and real the novel is, It has won some awards and made the cut to get on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. I’m not really sure what book all these people have been reading, but I am at a loss to see how it’s this one.
So yes, our narrator is ten year old Darling, a child in a Zimbabwean shantytown who is living a carefree life with her group of friends (with names such as Bastard and Godknows, which is why I thought the book had the title it does, but no). Even her friend being pregnant and her father dying of AIDS (which they call The Sickness) can’t dent Darling’s outlook on the world. Partway through, Darling is taken from the life she knows and loves and is sent to live with her aunt Fostalina in “destroyedmichigan”. So we veer from a child’s view of the day to day horrors of living in a place torn by civil war, to a child’s view of the day to day horror of trying to live in a country where people bully you for being different and you don’t have the first clue about the realities of their culture.
Which, as plots go, is fine. But it isn’t groundbreaking or original, as some of the rhapsodising would have you believe. I have read at least two other novels fairly recently that have similar arcs and are both narrated by children (Pigeon English and The Other Hand). Those two books also had tons of coverage when they were published, so I doubt they faded from the collective memory so soon (the former was even shortlisted for the Booker in 2011!). So I am really at a loss to see how people fell over themselves to talk about just how touching and wonderful and original this book is.
The first chapter of the novel was originally published as a short story (which in itself won awards, don’t ask me why). In expanding the characters and themes into her debut novel, Bulawayo has crafted each chapter so it could in fact in be a standalone short story. While that’s an endeavour which obviously takes a lot of careful crafting and planning and therefore should be applauded, it’s also not the first time an author has done that either. Famously, David Mitchell did it with Black Swan Green. There is maybe something to recommend in the opening section, when Darling is still in her shantytown. The carefree way Darling relates the horrors she encounters is effective enough. But it really all goes downhill for me when she arrives in the US and my patience with her and pretty much everyone in the book ran out entirely a good three chapters from the end. I spent the last 40 pages or so just wanting it to be over and was very thankful when it was.