When she arrives at school one day, Dee notices the new boy before anyone else and forsees he will have an impact on the world she lives in. Little does she know. This is Washington DC in the 1970s. A new black boy is starting his first day at an all-white school. New Boy: Othello Retold is not the usual novel you expect from Tracy Chevalier. Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection of novels by contemporary writers re-telling Shakespeare’s most famous plays, it is thought-provoking, ambitious, but not totally successful.
Modernising such a well-known classic drama is always going to be problematic, with readers who love or hate it. Othello, possibly Shakespeare’s most political of plays, is about love, jealousy, sexual bullying and manipulation. Difficult subjects for a school. Some reviewers think this book should be marketed to adolescents but for me, the novel’s flaw lies in its timeframe. The action takes place over one school day so the arrival of Osei and his relationship with Dee charges from flirting, friendship, commitment to caressing, whispering and hurtful jealousy between the hours of nine in the morning and four-ish in the afternoon. There is simply too much to cram into one day. I had less of a problem with the arc from flirting to jealousy, remembering the intense emotions of being pre-adolescent. However my perception of the world in which the story is set was not helped as, being English, I wasn’t aware that the top year of grade school means Dee, Osei, Ian and Mimi are 11-years old. I thought they were older.
How different it would have been to set it across Osei’s first week at school, allowing space for each character to be explored. The nastiness of bully Ian could be explored in depth, instead of passing references to his brothers whose examples of extortion he imitates, and his father who beats Ian for swearing. ‘His father had taken his belt to him early on to make clear that swearing was his domain, not his son’s.’ There is a deeper tale of manipulation & bullying trying to get out. But New Boy is shorter, at 192 pages, compared with Chevalier’s most recent novels – At the Edge of the Orchard, 305 pages; The Last Runaway, 353 pages – so no wonder the story feels constricted.
‘New Boy: Othello Retold’ by Tracy Chevalier [UK: Hogarth] Buy now
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