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.
Hogarth have been, since 2015, putting out retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays by notable modern authors; they started with Jeanette Winterson’s Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale; and have also published the magnificent Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, a truly great Tempest reworking; Vinegar Girl, Ann Tyler’s terrible Taming of the Shrew that doubles down on the misogyny of the original; and Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice retelling, Shylock Is My Name, which I’ve not read. Their latest is Tracy Chevalier’s reworking of Othello into a 1970s grade school…
Othello is a hard play to rework in a modern setting. It relies so much on what is not very obviously racist stereotyping, and also on racist attitudes towards its titular character; Chevalier, unlike Atwood, has therefore chosen a period setting, in this case 1970s affluent Washington, D.C., that makes the racism easy to portray – and a little more distant from the present. Osei is a new student in the school, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and Chevalier uses the intensity of grade school – where relationships are made and broken in an hour, where feelings are raw and immature – to restage her Othello in the course of a single day.
There are drawbacks to this approach. Primarily, New Boy seems perpetually unsure how mature its sixth graders are; their claims to have had sex are obviously intended as overstatement, and yet the way Ian, in particular, is presented as sexually predatory, and the way the girls are presented as fully pubescent, seems to belong to somewhat older children. This tangles the plot, and drags the reader out repeatedly; setting the book with even slightly older children, by a few years, would have worked rather better. There is also an unexpected homophobic sideswipe; Chevalier isn’t wrong that these were the attitudes of the period but, since this is literally the only time queerness appears in New Boy, a half page of reported homophobia feels, to say the least, excessive.
The hardest part of New Boy to discuss is the plot. After all, it’s the plot of Othello. We know the plot; Chevalier didn’t invent the plot; she only translated it. So the question is, I suppose, is that translation good? And the answer is, it’s mixed. The sense of drama is incredibly strong, despite knowing how the story ends; the stakes feel high, even on a grade school playground, where duels to the death are reduced to fist fights. But incongruities – like Mimi’s silent compliance – feel more strained, and the credulity of Osei to Ian feels stranger and much less in character.
There’s also one significant flaw common to most approaches to Othello, and nothing to do with New Boy‘s setting: the characterisation of Ian, Chevalier’s Iago stand-in. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Ian is simply a bully; Chevalier doesn’t really go into it more than that, and even the sections from Ian’s perspective make one feel like he’s simply doing harm for the sake of doing harm, rather than for any more explicable or understandable reason, something that originates in the play but is painfully obvious when we get multiple pages of his point of view of events at a time here.
This is in marked contrast with Chevalier’s treatment with the rest of the cast of New Boy. Each of her other characters is treated sympathetically, from Osei and Dee, through Ian’s unwilling accomplice Mimi, to Casper, the golden boy who Ian uses to enact his plan to ruin Osei; they’re interesting, with compactly told but very full back stories and rich inner lives, that animate the story and plot such that we’re actually affected, anew, by a story we all know. Osei’s story is especially interesting, and serves as a hook for all sorts of other stories – his radical Black Panther-sympathising sister Sisi I would especially like to learn more about, but also what his father actually does as a diplomat moving around so much.
In the end, New Boy is a rather good retelling of Othello, suffering some of the flaws of the original and adding in more beside, while enhancing the characterisation of a number of backgrounded characters in Shakespeare’s work and with Chevalier much more sympathetic to the titular character. This isn’t at the Hagseed end of Hogarth’s set, but it’s much nearer it than the Vinegar Girl end.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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