AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel.
Ellah Allfrey first met Darling in 2011. Darling was the main character in a short story that won The Caine Prize for African Writing that year, which Allfrey judged. At the time, the character was one of a gang of children living in a Zimbabwe shantytown.
ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: Now, two years later, this glorious girl is back in NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel "We Need New Names," and she's just as feisty as I remember.
Bulawayo begins the book in a child's voice, but there's no whimsy here. Early in the adventure, the gang comes across a body, a suicide. At first, they run away. Then they realize that they can sell the woman's almost new shoes to buy bread. They turn back. These are serious times. Fractured families and social decay are realities that are never far away.
NoViolet Bulawayo is a born free. It's a term that describes citizens born after Zimbabwe's independence. Her critique of Zimbabwe is unfailingly honest, but she is also unfailingly generous with her characters, affording them dignity and a voice.
In one example, there's a telling description of a visit by well-meaning aid workers.
(Reading) The man starts taking pictures with his big camera. They don't care that we're embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing. They just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don't complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gift.
Towards the close of the book, Darling has a strained conversation with her friend Chipo. The old gang has scattered to America, South Africa and Dubai. Chipo has stayed home.
(Reading) You think watching on BBC means you know what's going on? No, you don't my friend, says Chipo. The house was burning, she continues, and Darling and her kind have left it to others to put out the flames.
SIEGEL: That was Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor of the magazine Granta. She reviewed the book "We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo.