This is my favourite so far of the Booker Prize shortlist for this year. It is the story of a girl who begins her life in Zimbabwe, then moves to the US. It is beautifully written in the first person, and spans perhaps eight years of her life. Her voice changes at a perfectly balanced rate as she grows up.
I have not visited Zimbabwe, and I doubt I ever will, but I have seen a tiny bit of it from the Zambezi river, which I have canoed down when I was staying in Zambia five years ago.
The first half of the book centres around our protagonist, Darling, and her friends. They used to live in proper houses with toilets and running water, but now, thanks to the current political climate, they live in tin shacks in a shanty town. They go over to the wealthy part of town to steal guavas from the trees there. The fruit fills their bellies but makes them sick. The title of the book comes from when the kids are playing a game where they are about to do a real-life abortion on their friend under a tree with a rusty coat hanger, but they are pretending to be doctors from the TV series ER.
There is a two-page chapter dead centre in the book which is pure poetry, telling of how the people left their country for strange lands. After that we hear of Darling’s life in the US. It turns out that not everyone in the US drives a Lamborghini as she had expected and there is crime and poverty here too. But of course, there is so very much food and at least she is not starving, and she does very well in school because school is so easy in this country that even a donkey could pass. There is humour in this sad story.
Maybe it was my imagination, but the phrase “things fall apart” or something similar was mentioned at least ten times in this book. Is Bulawayo referencing the archetypal modern African novel of the same name of the poem it references itself for the tile. Or am I just imagining things?
Darling is pleased to be in this developed country, but she is an illegal immigrant so life is far from perfect. Also, she misses home. But which home? She tells of the many homes in her and her immediate family’s heads: home before the white people stole the country, home during war, home after the black people got their country back when they had nice houses, and then the current home when they live in the shanty town. Of course, this is over-simplifying a hugely complex situation, but it is sobering to put it this way, and to point out that all this huge change can have happened in one person’s lifetime.
When your country is in such a terrible state that it’s people are leaving in droves it does not all become OK just because you as an individual are now living somewhere a bit wealthier and safer (and doing a crappy job there). Bulawayo illustrates this very well in the book.
I loved this book. I have yet to read the one that won the prize this year, but it will have to do very well to beat this one in my mind.