My new fave read of 2017! I actually read this one back in March but it took some time to form my thoughts into a coherent review. So happy I was approved for this book on NetGalley so a big thank you to the publisher! (Also, that cover!)
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Historical Fiction
“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—“O” for short—knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day, so he is lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one boy, used to holding sway in the world of the schoolyard, can’t stand to witness the budding relationship. When Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl, the school and its key players—teachers and pupils alike—will never be the same again.
The tragedy of Othello is vividly transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington school, 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. The world of pre-adolescents is as passionate and intense, if not more so, as that of adults. Drawing us into the lives and emotions of four eleven-year-olds—Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi—Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by love and jealousy, bullying and betrayal, is as moving as it is enthralling. It is an unforgettable novel.
This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, where different authors were given a Shakespeare play to reinvent in their own writing style. I’ve really been looking forward to reading and New Boy is the first one I’ve gotten my hands on.
It surprises me a little to say this, and I didn’t really realize this until I read this book, but Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. And does the author ever do justice to it!
Obviously, this is a very racially-charged play and so the author’s book also focuses on racial tensions but she gives it more of a modern spin, setting her story in the 1970s at an elementary school. All of the action takes place within a day, divided into the different periods spent in the playground – before and after school, and both recesses. Here, rather than real-world politics, Chevalier focuses on playground politics and the children are our main players.
Though it’s not in a play format, we’re still able to get the different “scenes” because the author switches perspective between the main characters. It still feels like the original, and of course is fairly predictable, but it’s also refreshed with this more modern take. I think the racial tensions are easier for present-day audiences to pick up on because they’re a more accessible part of our history, whereas the events Shakespeare wrote of are not necessarily part of today’s common knowledge.
My 5-star rating really comes down to the impact it had. Even though I knew the story and what would happen, it was so much more powerful, and especially heartbreaking, because it happened to a group of children. This is a violent play, in acts and words, and seeing how racism can seep so far into our society leaves a heavy weight on your shoulders once you’re finished reading.
It’s not a light read – far from it – but it is important, especially in recognizing how little racial tensions have changed from the 1600s to the 1900s.
About the Author: Tracy Chevalier was born in October 1962 and grew up in Washington, DC, moving to England after graduating with a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio). For several years she worked as a reference book editor, while writing short stories in her spare time. In 1993 she quit to do an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England). Afterwards she juggled freelance editing with writing until eventually she was able to write full-time.
She lives in London with her English husband and son. She’s written 9 novels and edited 2 short story collections. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Apart from writing, she has curated three shows in art galleries/museums.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own