book review: new boy

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth Press, 224 pp.
Published May 16, 2017

DISCLAIMER: I received a free finished copy of this book from Hogarth Press via Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
Summary (via Goodreads): Arriving at his fifth school in as many 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 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.

My thoughts: Othello was the first Shakespearean play I read and it remains my favorite to this day. It also features one of my favorite villains in literature, the Machiavellian schemer Iago. When I saw a modern adaptation on offer, I absolutely had to request it! This was my first time hearing about the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, where popular authors reimagine the Bard's plays for a modern audience. I've already read and enjoyed Margaret Atwood's contribution, Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of The Tempest; thanks to my greater familiarity with Othello, I liked Chevalier's contribution even more!

Chevalier makes an interesting choice setting a story of lust, manipulation, and murder-suicide in the sixth grade. Reading the book jacket makes it sound like a bad choice, yet once you start reading, reimmersing yourself in the high drama of puberty, it actully fits rather well. The 'tweenage' years are full of changes: physical and mental. Emotions start to take on a depth, complicating themselves in ways that adolescents can't always articulate. Even with the best intentions this can lead to hurt feelings; when paired with malicious intent, disaster is all but assured.

The use of multiple perspectives further grounds this usually adult tale in a child's world. While the audience only gains insight into the inner workings of the villain Iago's mind in the play, New Boy shifts between Osei (Othello), Dee (Desdamona), Mimi (Emilia), and Ian (Iago). So many different reflections on the same events made their progression more natural, even when compared to the source material and taken in the context of rising pubescent turmoil.

Osei and Dee in particular are wonderful to read. Although New Boy is set in the 1970's, this Washington, D.C. school has no lack of racist undertones. Osei thinks often on the treatment his skin color provokes; as a Ghanan, rather than a black American, he struggles to fit in even with those who look the same as him. Dee exhibits none of these prejudices, although her ignorance leads to some awkward moments between the budding couple. Her earnestness carries with it positives and negatives, a subtle commentary on the understated forms of racism previously explored with great success in Jordan Peele's film Get Out.

There is a level of sexuality involved that may make some readers uncomfortable, but I didn't find it out of place. Eleven sounds quite young, yet on reflection I can remember the preoccupation with sex that wasn't uncommon among kids—boys in particular—when I was that age. Some readers might find the degree of its inclusion jarring, but it didn't impact my appreciation in the slightest.

However, I was somewhat disappointed with how Iago was adapted through the playground bully, Ian. In Shakespeare's play he's referred to as 'honest Iago': friendly, trusted, and believed harmless. New Boy casts Ian as a clear villain, feared on the playground, a source of unease for teachers, and a nasty boy long before Osei arrives at school. His glee at sowing discord and stoking mayhem makes him a threatening antagonist, just not the serpent beneath an innocent flower I loved in the original play.

Those who love Shakespeare's Othello should greatly enjoy this modern interpretation. And for those readers who have avoided his work because of the language, or just because they're plays, can still get lost in a timeless tale of love, jealousy, and the prejudices that find a way to make room for revenge.

RATING: ★★★★

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