Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: 'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier

From the first moment I discovered Shakespeare for myself I adored his mix of high drama with "low" humour, how he managed to combine laughter with tears. His history plays were always my favourite and I found myself struggling with some of his most famous plays, especially Romeo & Juliet and Othello. Strangely enough, both were made more appealing to me by Bollywood adaptations, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Omkara respectively. They gave me a new insight into the stories that made me reconsider my previous judgement of the plays. Chevalier has now done the same with her adaptation of Othello. Thanks to Hogarth and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/05/02917
Publisher: Hogarth; Vintage Publishing
'O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back.' 
Arriving at his fourth school in six years, 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 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching 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.
As I said above, I initially didn't like Othello, at all. I thought it was overly dramatic and Othello himself also rubbed me wrong. When I watched Omkara, however, I gained a whole new understanding of the play. By transposing the play from its Western setting and the cultural baggage its collected over the years, the film presented its themes in a new and interesting way. The effect of racism and colourism, the differences in class, Iago's feeling of betrayal and Desdemona's powerlessness in the face of Iago's scheming and Othello's paranoia felt a lot more real. The story deals intensely with how we see ourselves. Othello is worried his race will always colour how people see him, no matter how successful he is. Desdemona is aware that her position and skin colour should stop her from following her heart, but believes that her love should help her overcome those obstacles. Iago is intensely jealous and I've always thought of him as a man who feels much more is owed to him without putting in the work. These people have so much to loose, especiallt in their own eyes, that talking about their fears becomes almost impossible, allowing Iago's intrigue to work.  Omkara shows us these developments very well and  I was hoping for the same from New Boy. Although Chevalier definitely refigures some of the play's themes in an interesting way, something about the novel felt strangely shallow.

From the blurb I was expecting New Boy to be set in high school, not an elementary school. Setting it at such an early stage in life, all the characters are "reduced" to 10 to 12-year old children, which brings up some really interesting topics. At this age, children are still very much copying what they see in adults and Chevalier shows very clearly how racism, for example, is learned and copied. She also shows portrays the desire for popularity that starts showing itself at this age very well. However, I couldn't help but feeling that the story of Othello lost some of its spark in this setting. Some of the story elements that feel so dramatic and poignant in the Shakespeare play are undermined by the melodrama of an elementary school setting, especially since New Boy takes place during a single day. O and Dee 'go with each other' within what seems like an hour and are somehow deeply attached to each other despite their young age, and similarly the feelings of jealousy and betrayal also arise during this one day. These children are very much acting out what they have seen adults do, and although that is interesting, this means that at the heart of it we don't get the same exploration of the self, but rather a commentary on society.

Osei, or O, is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat who has moved around for much of his young life and now finds himself the new boy once again towards the end of a school year in the 1970s. Chevalier dedicates a lot of time to showing us how O has experience being new, how he has developed certain strategies of coping both with the suspicion of anyone new and with the different forms of racism and prejudice he frequently encounters. Chevalier makes him an incredibly sympathetic character and I felt almost saddened by how quickly this characterisation dissolved when the plot really took off. Within a single day O seems to forget everything he's learnt and this didn't feel entirely realistic to me. Similarly, Dee seemed like a very level-headed and smart girl, yet once she starts 'going' with O she lost some of her sparkle. Perhaps it's also simply that I can't wrap my head around 11-year olds becoming this fascinated with each other so quickly or that a schoolyard bully could come up with such a convoluted ploy to hurt the other students, but the novel didn't feel as immersive and deep as I would have liked for it to be.

Tracy Chevalier is a great writer and I loved her writing in Girl with the Pearl Earring. She knows how to set a scene and how to describe those tormenting emotions. There are great moments in New Boy where this does show, especially when we see the teachers betraying their own racism, but perhaps it is the relative brevity of the novel, less than 200 pages, that prevents her from going deeper more frequently. Because of the reasons described above I feel this novel swims somewhere between Middle Grade and YA fiction. The lessons to be learnt from reading New Boy are very obvious and in many ways it is a good novel to set up a conversation with a child about racism and bullying. Switching between the narration of the different children, Chevalier is able to show multiple points of view, which works occasionally. But except for some moments with O, New Boy doesn't delve very deeply into the insidiousness of inherited racism and the obsession with popularity. I think Hogarth's range of Shakespeare adaptations is a brilliant idea because the reason his plays are so popular is because they touch on a range of intensely human emotions. I will definitely be reading more of the series, even if I didn't connect with New Boy quite the way I hoped I would.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed New Boy but it didn't entirely work for me. For a young reader, however, this is a great introduction to the themes that make Othello a fascinating play. However, for an adult reader I don't think this novel holds quite enough to make it a worthwhile read. I'd recommend this to fans of Middle Grade and YA fiction.

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