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Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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Near-future Britain is not just a nation under surveillance but one built on it: a radical experiment in personal transparency and ambient direct democracy. Every action is seen, every word is recorded.

Diana Hunter is a refusenik, a has-been cult novelist who lives in a house with its own Faraday cage: no electronic signals can enter or leave. She runs a lending library and conducts business by barter. She is off the grid in a society where the grid is everything. Denounced, arrested, and interrogated by a machine that reads your life history from your brain, she dies in custody.

Mielikki Neith is the investigator charged with discovering how this tragedy occurred. Neith is Hunter’s opposite. She is a woman in her prime, a stalwart advocate of the System. It is the most democratic of governments, and Neith will protect it with her life.

When Neith opens the record of the interrogation, she finds not Hunter’s mind but four others, none of which can possibly be there: the banker Constantine Kyriakos, pursued by a ghostly shark that eats corporations; the alchemist Athenais Karthagonensis, jilted lover of St Augustine of Hippo and mother to his dead son, kidnapped and required to perform a miracle; Berihun Bekele, artist and grandfather, who must escape an arson fire by walking through walls – if only he can remember how; and Gnomon, a sociopathic human intelligence from a distant future, falling backwards in time to conduct four assassinations.

Aided – or perhaps opposed – by the pale and paradoxical Regno Lönnrot, Neith must work her way through the puzzles of her case and find the meaning of these impossible lives. Hunter has left her a message, but is it one she should heed, or a lie to lead her into catastrophe? And as the stories combine and the secrets and encryptions of Gnomon are revealed, the question becomes the most fundamental of all: who will live, and who will die?
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Nick Harkaway has always straddled the line between literary fiction and science fiction, whether it be in his post-apocalyptic The Gone-Away World or the superhero-meets-colonialism of Tigerman. The question this begs for each new work is, which side of the line does it favour…?

Gnomon is a complex book, to the point of being difficult to review; the question of where to begin so as not to get bogged down in one aspect and neglect others is a difficult one, because it is so dense. Harkaway’s worldbuilding is incredible; he’s not only written a near-future London whose transport infrastructure feels intensely real, but whose political infrastructure also feels all too plausible. Gnomon is set in a Britain that has embraced a system that combines direct democracy with a panopticon surveillance society, overseen by the computer algorithm known as the System; in everyday life, that manifests as the System being a personal assistant like a Siri that can predict your wants and almost read your mind… and that perhaps functions at times like a nudge unit. The impact of this is part of the conflict at the heart of the novel; what it means for individual privacy and freedom isn’t given a simple answer. If a crime is committed, it is investigated by the humans who make up the Witness, combining human insight with the non-intelligent technology of the System; and people’s minds can be mapped and read to establish innocence or guilt – or conspiracy.

Nominally, Gnomon follows the investigation of Mielikki Neith, inspector of the Witness, into a mind-mapping operation on Diana Hunter which went wrong and led to her death… and to the information the mapping was meant to discover. Inevitably, for something which combines thriller with science fiction, this leads Mielikki to a greater conspiracy; but it is also how Harkaway brings in a number of secondary narratives, shells Diana used to hide herself from the brain mapping by giving it false personas and histories to read. Each of these narratives within the central narrative of Mielikki’s investigation is as brilliantly written and complex, and fully peopled, as the main narrative itself; Gnomon essentially has five different narratives, four of them shell games around the fifth central one, each of which has clues to what is going on in the others and what they mean. The way Harkaway weaves these different narratives together, and draws different points and keys out of them, and links them in to each other symbolically and literally, is beautifully done, albeit weaving the kind of web across nearly 700 pages that it can be hard for the reader to keep track of.

One of the things Harkaway uses to help with this is excellent characterisation. Gnomon is one of the most interestingly peopled novels I’ve read in a long time, and with one of the most unusual approach to personhood; not only does the text demand the reader interrogate the idea of the individual, but the text itself does. The cast includes ancient alchemists from the time of Augustine (Athenais, fictionalised mistress of the real Augustine before his conversion and mother of his son) to present-day Greek bankers playing the markets and playing gods (Constantine Kyriarkos, whose name alone is suggestive), an immigrant Ethiopian exile and extraordinary artist (Berihun Bekele, who Harkaway uses to talk about the history of colonialism and interrogate online racism, right up to a direct albeit not-by-name engagement with the hate campaign that is GamerGate), and a multiply-embodied far-future post-human engaged in a war with entropy (Gnomon’s sections are by far the strangest). Most of these characters are as powerfully fleshed out as those in the real world of the novel, with their own lives and relationships; Gnomon goes in deep on the granularity of individuality. The one character Harkaway falls down on is Gnomon themself; the multi-bodied post-human being seems rather two-dimensional, and their thoughts rather too human, while also being at the same time a little too simplistic and, compared to the other narratives of the novel, essentially uninteresting.

The strongest point of Gnomon is perhaps its unexpected ending; Harkaway goes to his most literary at the close of the novel, with an ending that is simultaneously cliche and utterly new, and wholly unexpected. Each character’s narrative is beautifully and powerfully resolved, although not necessarily closed off; people don’t necessarily get what they deserve. Hints and clues which have been dropped throughout the narrative suddenly become obvious in hindsight, and the whole shape of Gnomon is shifted into a new format.

If there’s one drawback, it’s that it takes nearly 700 pages to get there; at times, Gnomon feels like it is dragging, drawn out for the sake of it. Harkaway has certain moments and character motifs that repeat endlessly, as if to drive the point home; over the course of the full novel, these can become wearing, and the lack of obvious links between the narratives and Mielikki’s actual investigation, and the things going on in the background, can all become a little frustratingly obscure as Harkaway layers up the puzzle pieces that will eventually all fall into place together to create the final picture.

In the end, though, Gnomon is definitely worth it; another monumental, brilliant, brain-bending piece of literary science fiction from Nick Harkaway.

Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy requested from and provided by the publisher, William Heinemann, for review.

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Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, trans. Karin Tidbeck

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Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck’s world, everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by a captivating new voice.
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Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention through Cheeky Frawg’s publication of Jagganath a few years back; it feels like even then we were all waiting for a novel by this multitalented multilinguist who translates her own fiction from Swedish into English, including this novel. So perhaps it is no surprise that Amatka is such a linguistically involved novel…

Amatka is on the surface of it a novel in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin mixed with a good dash of George Orwell; The Dispossessed meets 1984. At the start, it seems like a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union with a dash of the Weird, with its intrusive government presence, communist and communal system, dismal dreariness, spartan tendencies, and general bureaucratic and depersonalising approach. Tidbeck sets us up to expect one kind of novel, very much in the mode of 1984, where love as resistance leads to a more generalised resistance against an unjust authority; but Amatka goes in a different direction, with its weirder elements.

Those weirder elements are also present almost from the very start, with the labelling of everything; it’s implied that in the world of Amatka, naming things helps them or forces them to keep their form. It’s an interesting concept on the face of it, and that’s before Tidbeck goes further with the idea, playing with it and pushing it to weird and strange places. Tidbeck uses Amatka to play with, and literalise, the ideas of form and function as defined by language, and reality being what we describe it as; there are fantastic unspoken parts of the book about the way poetry versus prose describe things, and fiction versus fact, that are really interesting and could have been almost a whole novel in themselves.

Amatka is an entry in a long discussion in fiction about dystopia and the way strictures are enforced on society. Tidbeck builds her Soviet-reminiscent setting before explaining at all why it is necessary or how it came about; we see everything from the perspective of Vanja, and her status in society, which influences our reactions to everything, for reasons which only become clear as the book continues. Amatka plays with the necessity of the strictures of oppression, requiring the reader to ask whether freedom is worth the price, in this context, of that freedom, or whether order is worth the cost of order; there aren’t easy answers here.

The characters of Amatka are the weak link here. While Vanja’s outsider status and feeling of being a universal outsider is well written, and her doubts and anguish at the oppression of the communes well conveyed, the rest of the cast have a tendency to feel a bit flat, like ciphers or game-pieces moved into place for the sake of the plot and the sake of Vanja rather than people in their own right. Nina comes closest to breaking this pattern, and Tidbeck conveys her various conflicts between ideology and personal relationships very well, although at times, especially when they’re most strongly opposed, it can feel a little forced.

In the end, despite the weakness of characterisation, Amatka is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and Tidbeck’s writing and ideas spark off the page and engage the reader wholly. An intellectual, literary piece of brilliance.

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Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera trans. Lisa Dillman

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In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.
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Kingdom Cons is Yuri Herrera’s third novella with And Other Stories, and his third in the peculiarly Mexican genre known as narcoliterature; whereas Transmigration of Bodies is a postapocalyptic plague-ridden story, and Signs Preceding the End of the World a more traditional people-smuggling story, Kingdom Cons is a story itself about narcoliterature, and taking the form of a more mythic story, with Arthurian resonances.

Kingdom Cons doesn’t have characters, it has roles; it has members of the Court of the King(pin). The only character whose name we ever learn, the Artist, Lobo, is our viewpoint character, and we only see his name before he’s drawn into the orbit of the King; after that, he becomes the Artist, to join the Jeweller, the King, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Journalist, and so on. Each person has a kind of nebulous property; they are defined by their role, but also exist beyond it to some extent, such that the Artist especially has both a life revolving around the King, and a life in defiance of that life. Indeed, Herrera recalls Arthurian legend with the role of the Artist especially, as he echoes Lancelot, right through to the end of the novella’s story.

If the characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, and defined largely by their roles, those roles are incredibly vivid. Kingdom Cons doesn’t go into a detailed discussion of the King’s cross-border drugs empire, but it does give a vague picture of the kind of grime of that criminal enterprise, of the compromises made with other criminals, of the complicity of the authorities on both sides of the border, of the way that it impacts the lives of those in the orbit of the King and manipulates their lives into strange, near-mythic things utterly unlike those on the outside. Herrera doesn’t glamourise this life, but doesn’t pretend it doesn’t have upsides either; it’s an interesting balance to strike, and one done with great skill.

A theme throughout the novel, largely drawn from Herrera’s focus on the Artist as protagonist, is about the way stories about the drugs trade mythologise it. Kingdom Cons is a story about narcoliterature as well as being a piece of narcoliterature; the importance of face, the importance of image, are central to the story, and Herrera is very aware of what stories can do, in terms of giving or stealing away power from someone. The way Kingdom Cons engages with those questions, and the concommitant responsibilities or lack thereof, of artists is a fascinating discussion that is held by playing out different options for the Artist, and by following through the various possible consequences of different kinds of choice.

If Kingdom Cons has a drawback, it’s the treatment of women. In part influenced by the macho culture of Mexico, women are valued only for their sex appeal; every woman we meet, with the exception of the Witch, is a sexual partner or a potential sexual partner, and they are judged by their worth as such. Herrera doesn’t really give any of them any characterisation; he comes closest with the Commoner, but even she barely has a character or motivation, and her actions with regards to the Artist seem peculiarly undirected and motiveless.

It’s impossible to discuss Kingdom Cons without discussing the language. Between Herrera and Dillman, this is a really interesting novel; the whole thing is told in one breath, essentially, with a couple of seeming asides which move outside the immediate orbit of the Artist into a wider view or a more purely philosophical approach, and these are beautifully rendered in prose that Dillman translates with a crystal clarity. Similarly, Dillman translates the poetry and lyrics of Herrera’s novella into English with a deft hand, and presumably retains their original feel; even when Herrera is using onomatopoeia or phonetic renderings of words, Dillman conveys both their meaning and that they are translated rather than the direct words, an incredible balancing act.

Kingdom Cons may be a slim volume, but it’s a fascinating, thoughtful one. Be prepared to fall into Herrera’s myth and not fall out.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, And Other Stories.

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen

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The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
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I picked this book up the day after it won the Man Booker International Prize for David Grossman (and of course, Jessica Cohen, the translator); A Horse Walks Into A Bar suggested something dark and comic, and fantastically well written, given the acclaim of the prize.

That’s not what this is. A Horse Walks Into A Bar has a seemingly simple plot: we’re being narrated to by a member of the audience about a stand-up gig. He’s not comfortable at this gig, it isn’t his crowd, and he’s dogged by the tragedy of losing his wife a few years back and his job a little more recently than that. That undercurrent of grief is rendered stronger and more poignant by the subject of the stand-up’s set, and the fact that said stand-up is a friend of the narrator. The big problem with all this, though, is that this isn’t the novel we’re told to expect by Grossman’s opening.

A stand-up set has to be funny above all else; however it achieves that, it has to be funny and engaging. In retelling a stand-up set, A Horse Walks Into A Bar needed to grab the audience’s attention from the start, like the comic bounding onto the stage at the end of the introduction and telling a great joke. Instead, in something that will become a motif of the book, it’s a slightly shambolic opening, completely missing the chance at humour. Grossman’s book isn’t really about a comedy set: it’s about a man standing on stage and, interspersed with jokes, telling his tragedy. The opening very much embraces the unfunny failing, the shambolic element of this, but it doesn’t situate it as anything; it reads as Grossman attempting to write a good set and failing, rather than successfully writing a bad one.

Once the reader gets passed the opening and into the real meat of the novel, though, A Horse Walks Into A Bar improves – as, indeed, does its humour. Grossman slowly peels back the layers of artifice of both his narrator, a childhood friend of the comic, and of Dovaleh G., the comic himself; each reveals themself to the audience, whether of the set or of the book, and shows their vulnerability. The tragic presence of our narrator, and the tragic past of Dovaleh, are slowly exposed, and the links between them made clear; it’s a fascinating and deep, thoughtful, and empathetic piece of writing that really does cut to the heart of grief and loss and self-blame.

It’s also as the novel goes on that the humour of it improves; not so much of Dovaleh’s set, but of A Horse Walks Into A Bar itself. The way the narrator interjects into Dovaleh’s set, his commentary on the audience and the audience’s reaction to the comic, and even some of the jokes Dovaleh tells (without telling them necessarily as jokes) all lighten the mood expertly: this is a deeply dark novel, and a bleak one, but with a strain of black humour to leaven it.

I’m not sure I agree with the judges of the Man Booker International that A Horse Walks Into A Bar was the best book on their shortlist, but will admit that Grossman’s novel does reward a persistent reader: if you get past the faltering, clumsy start, there’s something deeply human to behold.

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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Before we go any further, a public service announcement for UK readers! Today is election day here! If you can vote, do! Today is your chance to cast a vote which is going to irrevocably effect the course of our country going forward!
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Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.


But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’


Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.
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John Darnielle is best known as the primary (on occasion, only) member of the Mountain Goats, an indie-rock/folk band that focuses on concept albums. He has lately started making forays into prose fiction too, with Wolf In White Van in 2014 and now, Universal Harvester in 2017…

Universal Harvester is an incredibly strange novel, and a hard one to pin down. Darnielle mixes elements of horror, the Weird, and literary fiction together, with some fascinating psychogeographical observations; to pin just one genre on this novel would be very reductive, because while it draws on the tropes of each, it is not entirely of any of those genres. Darnielle uses a mounting horror of something he keeps out of view throughout the novel, an unknown that is strange and bizarre, to take what seems otherwise entirely mundane into a stranger realm; but at the same time, a lot of the novel is concerned with the ordinary everyday lives of its characters, and especially Jeremy, its protagonist, in a very literary way.

This contrast is heightened by the slow series of revelations that Darnielle allows the reader into what the horror and strangeness at the heart of the novel is; Universal Harvester doesn’t do a simple reveal, but shows corners of the sculpture, and the vague shape of it under a tarpaulin, until the reveal at the very end, which gives the reader a completely different sculpture to the one we had previously expected.

One of those revelations is as to who the narrator is; what seems at the start to be a simple omniscient third person narrator breaks in to the narrative to interject comments and questions directly to the reader, and to throw in some foreshadowing. The most fascinating way Universal Harvester does its foreshadowing is by giving alternate paths the novel could have gone; Darnielle, at certain key points, tells us about the alternative routes characters could have taken that would have totally derailed the novel, highlighting the key moments in the book, and the key decisions, especially those which look less central. It’s not a subtle approach but, because of the way Darnielle controls his narrative, it’s an effective one, and a well-accomplished one.

Universal Harvester essentially concerns a very small cast in a Midwestern town in Iowa; the whole book is written as a kind of nostalgic haze for a very specific late-90s in a very specific kind of place. The book would not work without the technology of the home VCR, and the institution of independent video rental stores; both of which have now become, fundamentally, obsolete. There’s a real concern with ensuring the reader understands exactly what small-town Iowa is like, and repeatedly, the narrator breaks off to give a kind of psychogeographical overview of the town Universal Harvester is set in. It’s an approach which occasionally meanders and goes on too long; and some of these sections feel like Darnielle is deploying special pleading, without looking at the problems of those places (the world of Universal Harvester is very straight and very white).

There’s also a nostalgia for a certain kind of person that Universal Harvester seems to think has maybe vanished; Darnielle centres the novel on Jeremy, the son of a blue-collar worker who lost his mother in his teen years, and who seems at the start of the novel to be drifting through life and somewhat emotionally repressed. It’s an interesting portrait and a very generous one; indeed, Darnielle is generous to all his characters, who he seems to have a huge amount of empathy for. The idea of that kind of youth seems to be one Darnielle has huge admiration for, and sees as a mixed blessing: the emotional repression of characters is one of the things at the heart of Universal Harvester, and the different directions it can take – positive or negative.

Universal Harvester is brilliantly written, incredibly empathetic, and doing fascinatingly strange and Weird things; but Darnielle’s nostalgia occasionally takes over the book too much, leading to some frustrating bumps in the road.

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Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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They used to be inseparable. They used to be young, brave and brilliant – amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone. August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi shared everything: songs, secrets, fears and dreams. But 1970s Brooklyn was also a dangerous place, where grown men reached for innocent girls, where mothers disappeared and futures vanished at the turn of a street corner.

Another Brooklyn is a heartbreaking and exquisitely written novel about a fleeting friendship that united four young lives, from one of our most gifted novelists.
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Jacqueline Woodson is best known for her many children’s novels, having won any number of awards for them; this isn’t her first foray into adult fiction, but Another Brooklyn is one of the few of her novels that have crossed the Atlantic, and it’s my first foray into her work.

I went into Another Brooklyn expecting a (queer) coming of age tale like any other, about growing up black in Brooklyn. That’s not what this book is; it’s a rather more complicated beast than that, and a rather more interesting one than a straightforward literary bildungsroman. Instead, Another Brooklyn intersperses August as an adult, reflecting on the death of her father, as a frame narrative to looking back on her childhood, aged eight and growing up to go to college; Woodson draws the two strands together across the course of the novel, never losing sight of the fact that this is remembered history, full of regrets, being retold by a character, but also bringing a lot of immediacy to that retelling.

Another Brooklyn is rawly emotional. It isn’t emotional in an adolescent way, but in the way of a soul being bared; reflective and thoughtful, but incredibly powerful in the quiet conveying of the highs and lows of childhood. The blended timeline is a little unclear at the start of the book, as Woodson introduces the grown-up August, the teenage August, and the child August all at once, without separating them into clearly separate periods, but this is very intentional. While across the course of the novel it creates a kind of poetry as she unpicks the three different timelines, bringing everything into focus to give us a powerful picture, the abstraction of the lack of simple chronology really lends an additional boost to an already poetic style to give us a long prose poem in many stanzas, it can be singularly offputting at the start.

Woodson never stints on her characters. Another Brooklyn is essentially August’s story, but it’s also the story of her three friends, each of whom comes from a radically different background and goes in a radically different direction, but who come together for some years in Brooklyn before drifting apart; their friendship and relationships are beautifully conveyed, and their individuality incredibly powerfully realised. But the rest of the cast, from their various parents to the boys they pick up, are all very rapidly fleshed out with an amazing economy of language, Woodson using actions and words rather than August’s reflections for the most part to reveal character, but consistently cutting to the quick of it with that linguistic economy.

Another Brooklyn, by virtue of the story it tells, is a very political book. Woodson doesn’t shy away from that, although her afterword never makes it explicit; this is a story about “what it means to grow up girl in this country” (page 172), and more explicitly what it means to grow up as a black girl. Woodson takes in the toxic masculinity of American culture that visits sexual violence on children and adolescents as readily as it does on adults, and the way that is normalised; she writes about the Nation of Islam not as some strange foreign thing but as a part of the black experience of America, and writes about Islam with a sympathy that many writers fail to find; and she slips queerness in all over the place, without highlighting it, simply as a facet of various characters’ lives.

Another Brooklyn isn’t a political book in the sense of being a manifesto: it’s a political book in the sense of telling a story that is inherently political. It’s a prose poem, an imagined biography, and a beautiful story of coming of age as a black woman in America.

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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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.
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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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