We Need New Names is a lush, language-rich narration by a young African girl who gradually becomes an expat in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The narrator's voice has a wonderful innocence, even as she and her playmates (I'd say schoolmates but the teachers have all left the country and the school closed) play such games as "Find Bin Laden." She also has a special gift for capturing expressions on other characters' faces: "like she was hearing music inside her head and dancing to it" is a description of the expression of an aunt who has been complimented by an old flame who is marrying someone else.
The disintegration of the home country, the desperate desire to be somewhere else, and the bitterness of those left behind are rendered in muscular, lyrical prose studded with native ("our language" which is never identified) and childish phrases. The description of eating the guavas (on which she used to gorge herself as a child) for the first time since coming to the U.S. Is worth the price of admission: funny, tender, voracious, and yearning.
The only piece of this novel that hit a sour note for me was a chapter at the end of the book narrated by a "we" rather than the "I" in every other chapter. It consisted of a lyrical, wild description of the labor of largely undocumented newcomers to the US. While beautiful in its own right, and easily capable of being a brilliant standalone essay, it was oddly out of place, especially as our narrator herself had barely begun to work. It sounded like an angry political squawk in an otherwise equally powerful but more subtle birdsong that is ultimately more personal and persuasive.