Two short(ish) reviews

I read two fantastic books in the middle of my manic assessment period at the end of first semester – Euphoria by Lily King and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Both books featured strong, memorable characters, and both books were set in foreign countries (New Guinea and Zimbabwe respectively), each with a beautifully developed sense of place. Some thoughts on each –

Euphoria by Lily King

A story about a love triangle between three anthropologists (Nell, Fen and Bankson) in remote New Guinea has the potential to be action-packed – surprisingly, Euphoria is almost a character study. Which is really quite clever of King, when you consider that her characters were busy in New Guinea doing their own character-studies, albeit of a slightly different nature.

The theme of ‘observation’ is embedded throughout the story, from the detached, retrospective narration to judgements about what is ‘civilized’ (there’s much made of the ‘barbaric’ customs of remote tribes as the book is set in the 1930s). While the anthropologists focus on recording the power and family structures within the tribes, their own relationships challenge what would be acceptable or conventional within their own society.

I’ve always been able to see the savageness beneath the veneer of society. It’s not so very far beneath the surface, no matter where you go.

More significantly, as Fen and Nell’s marriage falters, Fen’s psychological (and implied physical) abuse of his wife, and his desperate attempts to assert his masculinity and mark his territory, compare to the brutal customs of the tribes they’re working with. King executes these themes with the lightest of touches and as a result, I was thinking about the characters long after I closed the book.

The story you think you know is never the real one.

Euphoria was inspired by the real-life love triangle between renowned anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson although their stories ended quite differently to the surprise King delivers.

3.5/5 Immersive.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The innocence and naivety of Darling, the narrator in We Need New Names, bent my heart every which way.

Darling is ten-years-old, living in Paradise – a poor name for a shantytown in Zimbabwe. Bulawayo’s focus is on Darling and her little gang – Stina, Chipo, Bastard and Godknows – who roam about stealing guavas; playing invented games such as ‘Find bin Laden’; and charming NGO volunteers.

It is through Darling’s eyes that we get snatches of the catastrophic state of Zimbabwe – hyperinflation, land claims, the continuing AIDS epidemic and violence – although her main concern is ridding Chipo of her ‘stomach’. Chipo is eleven and pregnant.

Then who put it inside her? How can we know if she won’t say? Who put it in there, Chipo? Tell us, we won’t tell. Chipo looks at the sky. There’s a tear in her one eye, but it’s only a small one.

Darling gets the chance to escape – from Zimbabwe she travels to America to stay with her aunt on a visitor’s visa. There’s ‘so much’ in America, although she soon discovers that as an illegal immigrant, her options are few. Feeling alone and alien, Darling longs for home, yet never wants to go back.

Mention must be made of two stand-alone chapters in the book – How They Left and How They Lived – which provide a commentary on the immigrant experience. These are the chapters that elevate this book, that snap you from Darling’s trusting gaze to something uncertain, terrifying and heartbreakingly sad –

And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. … Is it where dissidents shove K-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. …oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news. And when these words tumbled from their lips like crushed bricks, we exchanged glances again and the water in our eyes broke. Our smiles melted like dying shadows and we wept; wept for our blessed, wretched country. We wept and wept and they pitied us and said, It’s okay – it’s okay, you are in America now, and still we wept and wept and wept and they gave us soft little thingies and said, Here is some Kleenex, here, and we took the soft thingies and put them in our pockets to look at later and we wept still, wept like widows, wept like orphans.

4/5 I loved Darling.

I received my copy of We Need New Names from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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14 responses

  1. Two very different books to contemplate. But I’m more drawn toward Bulawayo’s just from the snippets you’ve mentioned. No doubt exceptionally powerful.

  2. I enjoy ‘African’ writing, Nigerian really. I wonder if the writing – in English – in other sub-Saharan African countries radiates out from there. Though I suppose South African is different again. If I only had time … One of the things I would do if I had time is read Bulawayo and work my way towards being knowledgeable about something other than old Australians.

    • Soon after I finished We Need New Names I saw it as an audio at my library. Because I was supposed to be studying (and not reading for fun) and because I was very recently familiar with the story, I borrowed it and basically read the book all over again – very much enjoyed the narration (the only bit that wasn’t as good as reading it were the two chapters I mentioned above – kind of lost its rhythm there in the audio version). Well worth listening to if you can find it.

  3. I’m always keen to read anything from PNG so I’ve reserved Euphoria at the library.
    *small frown* *wags finger* You are not helping the state of my TBR, you know…

    • Always happy to help 😀 Seriously though, will be interested to hear your thoughts. I don’t know anything about the people the story was based on, so have no idea how accurate the historical facts are. Nor do I have a handle on the level of understanding of other cultures in the 1930s – I imagine that broadly speaking, tribes from PNG would have been considered a ‘curiosity’ for the general public and ‘something to study’ for the anthropologists.

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