It’s eleven-year-old Osei’s first day in his new Washington DC elementary school in the 1970s, and he already knows that he isn’t going to fit in. Osei, known as O, the son of a Ghanian diplomat, is the only black student in his new school, and he’s used to being the outsider. But when he is befriended almost immediately by the pretty, popular Dee, he’s dragged unwittingly into the middle of schoolyard politics that he’s ill-equipped to navigate. The unpleasant bully Ian is immediately jealous of O’s sudden status, and plots revenge.
So far, so Othello 101. This new entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, where well-known authors are given the task of retelling Shakespeare plays, has been roundly criticised, and I’m not going to repeat the points made in those excellent reviews. However, while I absolutely agree that this novel does not work, I felt like I had a slightly different take (or perhaps an additional take) on why it doesn’t. Obviously, your opinion on New Boy will be strongly governed by your reading of Othello. Elle’s review quite rightly points out that Tracy Chevalier’s retelling completely alters the Othello character’s position in the story. Rather than an established, well-respected general who is not generally defined by his race, O is new to his environment and immediately defined as ‘the black boy’. This fundamentally refocuses the narrative of the play – and, I think, makes it less interesting. Chevalier’s take on racial politics is also, as Elle puts it, ‘insultingly simplistic.’ In short, New Boy says little more than that overt racism is bad, and because it is an historical novel, even if it is set in the recent past, risks falling into the reductive trap of suggesting that things were Bad Back Then but are Better Now. I’d add that O’s older sister, Sisi, who is obsessed with Black Power and natural hairstyles, is not only unnecessary to the story but is fast becoming a cliche in books about race written by white authors. Jodi Picoult’s problematic Small Great Things features a similar set-up; her protagonist is black nurse Ruth, who, like Osei, tries to conform to white social norms to avoid getting into trouble, whereas Ruth’s sister Rachel legally changes her name to Adisa, embraces her ‘ethnic roots’ and ‘natural kinky’ hair, has five children and lives on the minimum wage.
However, I’d like to talk about the novel’s central premise – the idea of setting Othello in an elementary school in the first place. Unlike many reviewers, I believe that this could have been made to work. Modern viewers often struggle with the very tight timing of the original play, and it makes sense to try and manage this by putting it into a setting where friendships, rivalries and feuds are notoriously short and volatile (although I’m not sure why Chevalier chose to challenge herself further by compressing the story into a single day). There are also some ageist assumptions floating about – I didn’t find the sophistication of thought displayed by Chevalier’s eleven-year-olds at all unconvincing, and I certainly think that children of this age are capable of both manipulating and reflecting upon manipulation at the level she shows, although I was less convinced by the material on sexuality, which felt both unrealistic and unnecessary. (Chevalier’s writing may be at fault here rather than the concept itself – a number of reviewers have picked up on the way that the children literally spell very complex thought processes out in their heads, and I certainly think that this could have been handled better.) Indeed, I think this might have been a good way of getting away from a lot of the baggage of the original play, although one’s opinion depends really on what you think was most important in the original play, given that some bits of it work better in an elementary school setting than others.
What I think is most important and interesting about Othello can be summed up in a single word: Iago (as long as that single word is allowed to encompass his relationship with Emilia, who is the other character that I find most compelling). Iago, at least from what I remember from English A Level, is a character with no clear motive for his villainy, although he offers a number of spurious motives for his actions across the course of the play. This is something that I see as central to his characterisation. Iago is not driven by a clear end goal but by his love of power for power’s own sake; he relies on observation and reaction, rather than on developing complicated plots ahead of time. As he puts it in his monologue at the end of Act 2, Scene 1: ‘‘Tis here, but yet confused./Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used.’ Furthermore, Iago gets better at manipulating people through practice. His rather simplistic plot against Michael Cassio, who has taken the post as lieutenant that he wanted, allows him to work out how to address the more difficult target of Othello. The famous dialogue between the two that encompasses the whole of Act 4 also showcases Iago’s cleverness, and how carefully he seeds doubt in Othello’s mind by referring to earlier things that Othello has seen or heard, as well as using Othello’s own insecurities against him.
Chevalier’s portrayal of the Iago character in New Boy, Ian, misses all of these points. Ian is a bully, but he’s not an especially intelligent one, and his motivations to make Osei’s life a misery are simple: he’s jealous of Osei’s status both as Dee’s ‘boyfriend’ and as a good baseball player, a jealousy that’s augmented by racism. Ian does manipulate the Cassio character, the popular Casper, but the section of the plot where he takes down Casper himself is almost completely omitted. Instead, we move straight to the bit where Ian/Iago tries to make Osei/Othello believe that Casper/Cassio has been having an affair with Dee/Desdemona. This has a significant impact on the complexity of Ian’s characterisation, because we don’t get to see him trying things out. Finally, Ian’s manipulation of Osei himself is incredibly basic. It could be argued that the verbal cleverness that Iago showcases would be inappropriate for an eleven-year-old, but this is where Chevalier could have demonstrated a better understanding of how non-verbal power dynamics function in the playground, and how somebody like Ian might take advantage of that to exploit the opportunities that come his way. New Boy cleaves most closely to Othello, in fact, in its ending, where we’re left feeling that Emilia (‘Mimi’ here) speaks out the loudest and gets the worst deal of all.
New Boy, while still technically an historical novel, is Chevalier’s first book to be entirely set in a world anywhere close to our own time, and I can’t say that it’s filled me with renewed confidence in her as a writer. (My thoughts on some of her other books can be found here.) Ultimately, it doesn’t stand as a story on its own – and comparisons with Othello only indicate how far it falls short.
I was given a free review copy of New Boy by the publisher via NetGalley.