Thursday, 11 May 2017

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Published in the UK by Hogarth Shakespeare today, the 11th May 2017.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Eyes

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

I was glad I knew in advance that New Boy was based on Shakespeare's tragedy play, Othello, because I am not sure I would have made the connection otherwise. Having listened to my audio version of the original work last month I was able to spot notions like the characters' names beginning with the same letters - Osei is Othello, Dee is Desdemona, Ian is Iago - and the overall direction of the tale, but I thought Chevalier's novella had a very different feel to it. Set in a school in 1970s Washington, her protagonists are 11 year old children and the story occurs over a single day, mostly in the playground. The environment is brilliantly evoked and it was easy for me to picture and remember the intense experiences of children at that age. Perhaps Osei and Ian particularly did seem significantly older than their stated age, but others like Rod and Blanca are perfect.

Most disturbing for me in New Boy is the attitude of the school staff towards Osei, the first black child to attend an otherwise almost entirely white school. The only other black people there are the kitchen staff and even they react unexpectedly to Osei. The expectations are the most shocking. Mr Brabant (Brabantio) 'knows' Osei will show himself to be troublesome so views what happens so it will fit his worldview. Dee's open reaction to Osei cannot be tolerated and this makes her character perhaps the most interesting of all. Unlike Desdemona who has already rebelled at the start of Othello, Dee learns to assert her independence during the course of this day.

Events in New Boy are minor when viewed from an adult perspective, but obviously earth-shattering to the children in Chevalier's playground. I thought fitting the story into such a short time frame did make its finale somewhat over-dramatic and difficult to justify, however otherwise I enjoyed reading this novella and am now encouraged to try others in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

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