Hardcover, 192 pagesExpected publication: May 11th 2017 by Hogarth
From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard
Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat’s son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970’s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
This review contains spoilers.
Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a bravely re-imagined work of Hogarth Shakespearean fiction. Reset in the 1970s on an elementary school playground, Othello’s racial tensions and treachery are re-imagined here in a unique new format.
When Osei arrives at his fourth school in as many cities, he is squarely familiar with not only the sensation of being the “new boy” but of being the only black boy as well. A product of an educated, diplomatic Guyanese family, he is bright and sharply intelligent. He knows what to expect in this all-white atmosphere that he has once again been implanted into, but, to his surprise, becomes friends with the Golden Girl of the sixth-grade class on his very first day. Yet, when jealousies and tempers flare, the prejudice toward the school’s lone black student propelling hateful words and malicious deeds forward, the students’ lives are forever changed in this one day at school.
Admittedly, this is a highly imaginative setting for these characters, yet I can’t really imagine this novel as an adult read. With that being said, I am grading it as (high-brow) YA, in the similar vein of vocabulary and maturity as Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series. Here, I enjoyed the witty wink toward the original with Chevalier’s use of derivatives of the original characters’ names: Othello became Osei; Desdemona became Dee; Iago became Ian, and so forth.
William Shakespeare’s Othello has long been one of my absolute favorites of his works—what can I say? I’m more partial to his tragedies. Tracy Chevalier’s adaptation of it is a work of short literary form—under 200 pages—that read quickly but not necessarily immersively. For the majority of the read, I felt that I was sitting on the surface of it all, the contrived situations and melodramatic plot fitting for YA, I suppose, but wasn’t immersive for me as an adult reader until the last fifth or so of the novel. There, the plot picked up speed and the threads of action began to pull together.
As a YA read, Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy functions as a relatable, lesson-teaching book with easily identifiable characters—the new kid, the mean kid, the popular boy, the skanky girl, the sidekick, and the “weird” girl. All of the typical players you’d need for a playground drama exist here, and that makes this a great read for middle schoolers and early high schoolers. Also, the subject matter, and the way that Chevalier tackles it here, is also expertly handled for that age group, where it will read as not only relatable but shocking simultaneously.
I definitely had some issues with this read, which is part of the reason why I just can’t label it as adult fiction and why I could not give it a higher rating:
1) The drama turned to melodrama pretty quickly, because of the unlikeliness of this plot line. Of course, we can argue that Shakespeare often gravitated toward the melodramatic—his plays were for theater, after all—but New Boy was often delivered as a string of events that all culminated into the ending, rather than a plausible story line that I could get behind.
2) One of Osei’s (the re-imagined Othello’s) main characteristics at the start of the novel was that he was experienced in not only being new, but in being the only black student as well. His older sister is a “rebellious” teenager who holds her fist in the air, a Afro proudly atop her head and ends all of her correspondences with the phrase Black is Beautiful. From the perspective of an African American, I would argue that Osei’s reactions to what happened on that day at school are highly unlikely and poorly imagined. In short, they read as if they were written by someone who has no experience themselves with such feelings, which left me feeling that there were several practical elements of New Boy that were poorly handled, certainly too poorly handled to pass or function as an adult read.
Chevalier’s New Boy tried to take us there—to that place at the crossroads of “coming of age” and “discovering oneself.” At times, it worked and rang true, and at other times it failed and crumbled flatly to the floor. While I applaud her attempt at re-imagining this classic work, at giving a voice to that little black boy in the 70s in his bewildering surroundings faced with confusing decisions, it didn’t always work for me, and I’ve seen Hogarth Shakespeare done better. So, Chevalier pulled away from this one with a solid 3 stars. ***
Also, I thought I’d go ahead and throw in that I give 2 big thumbs up for all of the COVER ART done for this novel! That’ll get you to pick this one up if a review won’t!
In her own words, Tracy Chevalier, “Talked a lot about becoming a writer as a kid, but actual pen to paper contact was minimal. Started writing short stories in my 20s, then began first novel, The Virgin Blue, during the MA year. With Girl With a Pearl Earring (written in 1998), I became a full-time writer, and have since juggled it with motherhood.”