#Review #NewBoy #TracyChevalier
In New Boy, 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.
We all know that Chevalier is a brilliant writer. And we all know that Shakespeare, well, he can really tell a story. So combine them and what have you got? An exceptionally well written, beautifully told, exciting and gripping drama. New Boy is hugely enjoyable and very very readable.
Transporting the story to America 1974, Chevalier introduces us to Osei Kokote, a diplomat's son and starting his fifth new school in as many years. He meets Dee, the most popular girl in the school which should make life easier. But Osei is the one black student and Dee is the golden girl, so how will their relationship affect the rest of the students? How will their friendship test the dynamics in the playground and the classroom? For one, fellow student Ian can't stand it and sets out to destroy the friendship between Osei and Dee in a chain of events that changes life at school in a way no one could predict and in a way that changes everything forever.
It's a tough task to reimagine a story so well known; one that has been so well constructed in the first place with such memorable characters and with such a masterful use of language. But not only does Chevalier rise to the challenge, she embraces it, runs with it and crosses the finishing line with a staggering novel that is not only true to the original essence of the tale but also manages to feel fresh and modern.
I am impressed with the way Chevalier has breathed new life into these famous characters. I am impressed with her imagination and clever adaption of setting, time and place. She skilfully combines enjoyment, entertainment and intrigue with thought provoking questions, emotions and reactions from the presentation and interaction of her characters.
Her characterisation is perhaps the aspect of the novel I enjoyed the most. I really liked the setting of a school playground and felt it totally leant itself to the key themes in the book. Her attention to detail enables the reader to build a vivid picture in their mind and her empathetic understanding of the complexities and nuances within a school community were excellent.
"....boys running chaotically, burning up the energy that otherwise made them restless in class; or playing with a ball, always something with a ball. The girls, playing hopscotch or jacks or jump rope. The loners, reading or sitting on top of the monkey bars or tucked away in a corner or standing close to the teachers where it was safe. The bullies, patrolling and dominating. And himself, the new boy, standing still in the midst of these well-worn grooves, playing his part too."
Osei creates a dramatic impression on the teachers and students. I loved the description of him:
"Now someone new and different had entered the territory......he was moving now. Not like a bear, with its bulky, lumbering gait. More like a wolf, or.......a panther, scaled up from house cats."
Dee, one of the main protagonists and one of the most popular students in the novel, literally holds her breath when Osei makes his entrance, as does every reader. What follows next is 'casual' racism, implicit, explicit, rude and judgmental. The vagueness about where exactly in Africa Osei may be from as if to say it's all one and the same, and laziness in trying to be politically correct are amusing, effective and also very jarring.
"he doesn't need special treatment just because he's bl- a new boy."
The setting of 1974 allows Chevalier to exploit this theme of the story. Osei's attempts to become part of their community, to be trusted, liked and respected are accentuated; the intrigue, suspense and tension is much more exaggerated. The more recent setting makes the racism have more of an impact and plays on the reader's conscience much more.
Osei is a beautiful character and I shared Dee's infatuation with him. His superiority, intelligence, emotional intelligence and physical appearance all well evoked and all lovely to read!
"....his full sentences and lack of contractions, the lilt in his speech, the rich exaggeration of his vowels....."
In contrast we have Ian. Ian who "was not the tallest boy in the year."
"He did not kick balls the farthest, or jump the highest when shooting baskets, or do the most chin-ups on the monkey bars. He did not speak much in class, never had gold stars pasted to his artwork, did not win certificates at the end of the year for best mathematics....."
Setting the novel in the school playground makes the story very real, accessible and relatable to all readers. It allows Chevalier to explore the most ugly sides of people and play out the dramatic denouement with as much tension, and with as much of an exciting climax, as Shakespeare ever did.
The opening chapters are quite lyrical and the prose is quite dense in places - although I loved the description, detail, imagery and metaphorical suggestions. But the novel does then pick up pace. There is a lot of dialogue which feels authentic, convincing and keeps the plot moving so that the tension is kept taut. It is a page turner.
I found this novel absorbing. I forgot I was reading a reimagining of a classic. I forgot I was reading a story I knew and I forgot I was reading about Othello. I was completely involved in the lives of Dee, Osei, Ian and Mimi. I was on tenterhooks as the novel galloped along to its dramatic conclusion and was as caught up in the novel as if it was something I was reading for the very first time. Chevalier is a talented writer and a masterful storyteller. This novel shows a great understanding of Shakespeare and also of themes like jealousy, bullying, love and betrayal. I recommend it.
New Boy is published by Hogarth on the 16th May 2017.
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