Sometimes, very seldom actually, I come across a book that I can honestly refer to as a masterpiece. I love to read and read voraciously, and usually enjoy most books that I read – but most of them don’t affect me or surprise me. I can honestly say that NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel was an experience I won’t soon forget.
As soon as I finished the first chapter I set the book down and had to pause for several minutes. I felt like I had just read something that was so deep, so transformative, so affecting – and all in the course of 17 pages. Only after did I learn that this chapter, ‘Hitting Budapest’, had been originally written as an isolated short story and had been the catalyst for the formation of the rest of the novel. The characters were, simply put, perfectly delineated and each one was given such a strong voice and personality that was awe-indusing. I have read entire novels in which characters weren’t as well formed as in these short few pages. Obviously, I was hooked from the start and couldn’t wait to see what journey this fantastic author was about to take me on.
The book can be easily divided into two parts. The first half of the book takes place in Zimbabwe. The narrator is a young girl named Darling. Darling is one of the best first person narrators I have encountered in my many years of reading. Her voice rings true, her questions are legitimate, when she is confused or happy the reader experiences those emotions with her. Her observations are powerful, but I was never perplexed with them coming from such a young child. Her voice rang true every step of the way. Through Darling we meet her eclectic group of friends: Chipo, Sbho, Bastard, Stina, and Godknows. The children live in a shantytown but dream of returning to a lifestyle that was recently taken away from them due to political changes in the country. They observe the adults around them and many times deride or question them, such as the local religious leader Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro. As they steal guavas from the rich homes in the Budapest neighborhood they discuss pop culture and imagined futures, but mostly they play and makes fun of each other. Their lives are not exceptional – they are children and act as such.
The second half of the novel takes place in Destroyedmichigan, as Darling’s aunt Fostalina calls it. Having left Zimbabwe for the United States Darling is displaced from the only place she has ever called home, thrown into new circumstances and forced to adapt. Adapt she does, at least superficially, but her inquisitive and questioning voice still remain.
The power in this novel lies in the fact that Darling refuses to stay quiet about her thoughts and opinions. This, unlike so many novels, is not sanitized to appease the readership. It constantly makes the reader question assumptions, preconceptions, and privilege. An early encounter with NGO volunteers provides a scathing breakdown of do-gooder tourism. A bathroom break in a wedding in the US showcases the obtrusive and nearly violent way in which inquisitiveness becomes aggressive essentialization and othering. The voiced frustration at a precarious life in a country that is not one’s own is an indictment of the ‘American dream’. Too often these voices, concerns, and opinions are cavalierly silenced by simplifying the issues and dismissing anything that is not outright patriotism and fervor – and what a disservice to progress and connection that is. Darling provides a personification of all the joys, sorrows, fears, insecurities that come with displacement.
Someone I am friends with on Facebook the other day posted a status asking why when white people, specifically American white people, go abroad they are referred to as ‘ex-pats’ whereas people of color are reduced to mere ‘immigrants’. Bulawayo’s novel, specifically the second half, makes Darling a true ex-pat. Someone who deeply loves her home nation, who misses it daily, who idealizes each and every memory. People migrate and move for many reasons, and many mourn the loss of the home that the may never see again. If anyone has ever experienced the loss that comes with having to (voluntarily or otherwise) leave behind one’s ‘home’, well, then, this book will speak to those feeling and experiences, and will do so in surprisingly funny and heartbreaking ways.