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.
New Boy is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello (read more about the original plot here) and part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. There are five books in the series, though I’ve only read one (Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood). I’m a bit of a fan of classics being re-told (when done right), how they take the story and give it that modern twist and make it feel like new. That was definitely the case here, where if I hadn’t been aware this was based on Othello I don’t think I would have been any the wiser because it stands up in its own right.
Set in 1970’s Washington D.C., New Boy takes place in the classroom and the playground with the cast being played by a group of rather hormonal 11 year olds. Othello is now Osei, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, new to school and the only black face in a sea of white students. He is immediately the subject of fear, speculation and, in the case of Dee (one of the most popular girls in school), love at first sight.
Her love starts to lead to acceptance from other pupils, threatening the delicate balance of playground hierarchies. Unhappy by this turn of events, “King” of the playground (Ian) schemes to bring Osei and Dee down and sets in motion an unfortunate and tragic chain of events which seem to lead to nothing but unhappy endings for everyone involved.All this takes place in the course of one day, with the book split into sections entitled recess, lunch etc., giving it a pace that it might not otherwise. I felt I was on a bit of a runaway train. You could see where it was heading with no way to stop it. It also made the book fairly short, so it was quick to read, though this doesn’t take anything away from the story.
At first I wasn’t sure about the school setting but when I think back to my teenage years or what the politics of my daughters playground and how one day you’re best friends, the next day you don’t want to know, it started to make sense. The era seemed right, with the almost inbuilt racism of so many and the way that’s affected their behaviour.
The only downside for me is the age of the children. I am not sure if they weren’t just a little of young for their behaviour. It seemed a little too Machiavellian for 11 year olds. Move everything forward a few years and, for me, this book would have been pretty much spot on. I like Tracy Chevalier’s writing style, finding it easy to read and accessible, and think she has really painted a picture here…plus written a book anyone, lover of Shakespeare or not, can pick up. A recommended read!