Have you ever picked up a book thinking, this is “my kind of book”? Before you read it, before you even hear other people’s opinion of it, you know this is a book for you? Well, thats how I felt about New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a group of novels written based on Shakespeare plays. I knew it was going to be a hit with me, I love Shakespeare, so I even made it a pick for The Stacks Book Club. The only problem is, I ended up not liking the book at all.
Here is a little more about the book, before I dive into my thoughts.
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.
Even re-reading that blurb of the book, makes me excited about all its potential. However, Chevalier does not deliver. The racism and bigotry in this book is handled as if it is no big deal. Its a lazy and inaccurate depiction of how prejudice works in America and on the school yard. The teachers, refer to Osei as the “bla— new boy” as if they are caught in the urge to say black, but must be PC. Considering how overtly racist these characters are, these seems like a unrealistic, false modesty. Its contrived at best. The book would be better off being more direct, the title should be Black Boy. The teachers should call Osei “colored” (as they would have in the 1970’s) and the current political correctness should be done away with.
This is the root problem with this book, there is no punch. There is no edge. There is no hurt. Its all a little too clean, and kind. If you’re talking about racism, lets talk about it. Its too big of a deal to get polite and shy away. Shakespeare certainly didn’t.
There is another major flaw in the story telling. There is no where for Osei to fall. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, those who end up as the tragic characters (Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet etc.) start off high and end in utter disrepair. The plays start off as near comedies, and then there is the fall. Othello, is leading ranks in the army, beloved by his troops, newly married, and off on another great battle. In New Boy, Osei is hated from the moment he walks on the school yard. Students notice him and shun him right away. He is nothing and therefore has nothing to lose. There are no stakes. The same is true of the Iago character, Ian. Ian is hated by all the kids, everyone is terrified of him, and he is known as a bully. Why would anyone ever listen to or trust him? In Othello, Iago is constantly called “honest Iago” and people love and trust him. This is what makes his betrayal and lies so devastating. We don’t see any of this in New Boy.
The book takes place over the course of a school day, this also diminishes any chance of building real emotions and consequences. How could any one of these children want to destroy one another after just a day? Chevalier really belittles her efforts by narrowing the time frame and the characters in this way.
This book minimizes the many characters and their motivations. It also neglects to embrace the complexity of racism and the feelings of entitlement that are clear in Shakespeare’s original. Chevalier has successfully stripped away much of what makes Othello great, and leaves us with the most simple and trivial version of what was once a complex and nuanced narrative.
I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you’re planning to read through all of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection to compare the work of many contemporary artists, and to see how they each dive into Shakespeare’s source material. The good thing is that New Boy is very short, and an easy read. Its too bad the content isn’t any good. There are so many books on race, alienation, betrayal, and entitlement, that I can not suggest you spend time on this one. Honestly, you’re much better off reading the original (you can find my full review of that here).
- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (February 13, 2018)
- 1/5 stars
- Buy New Boy on Amazon
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