22 May 2017

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy is the third book I’ve read in Vintage’s series of modern interpretations of Shakespeare plays. I enjoyed Vinegar Girl (Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew), and Hagseed (Margaret Atwood’s clever re-imaging of The Tempest), and I like the sound of Edward St Aubyn’s forthcoming Dunbar (his take on King Lear).

In New Boy, Chevalier transports the story of Othello to a suburban Washington DC schoolyard in the 1970s. The titular new boy is Osei (‘O’), the Ghanaian son of a diplomat, who has lived in a number of different countries and who is used to being the perennial new boy. Amazingly, given that a lot happens, the action in the novel takes place over the course of a single day — Osei’s first at this DC school — in the final weeks of sixth grade. Setting the story among 11- and 12-year-olds is a bold but somehow fitting move. These children — who would now be dubbed ‘tweens’ — are the kings and queens of elementary school and have formed firm friendships, which could soon been uprooted as they move on to their various junior high schools and start again at the bottom of the hierarchy. There is a heady mix of confidence and uncertainty among the characters in New Boy, and great precociousness.

This is 1970s DC and the pupils and even the teachers are wary of having a black boy join their school. And Osei, who has lived in London, Rome and New York, among other places, is confident and well-travelled, and this very worldliness acts as a catalyst, bringing out both the best and the worst in his various schoolmates. Popular future homecoming-queen Dee is the only character who immediately warms to Osei, and they end up sitting next to each other, trading pencil cases and even — in this world where relationships form and disintegrate within the space of a single day — agreeing to ‘go with’ each other. Later, Dee questions her own motives as to why she is so drawn to the new boy, but compared to her classmates, whose reactions vary from wary to downright furious, she is warm, welcoming and protective of her new friend.

The course of true love never did run smooth, however, and especially not in the sixth grade. Our antagonist Ian watches the new boy with shrewd, calculating eyes and, with a textbook youngest-son inferiority complex, realises that his own power within the schoolyard could soon be under threat, especially when he sees the sudden alliance between Osei and Dee. To nip this possibility in the bud, Ian quickly crafts a plan involving his minion Rod, girlfriend Mimi, Dee’s friend Blanca, Casper — the most popular boy in school — and a strawberry pencil case. The consequences are devastating for the whole school.

Chevalier’s novel is powerful, compelling and often shocking, with convincingly written characters who, as they deal with love (or something like it), friendship, jealousy and betrayal, and grapple with their own — often racist — beliefs. Although Othello works all too well in this sixth-grade 1970s setting, the teachers in New Boy are no better than their pupils. Some catch themselves before they explain how they always knew that a “bl—a new boy” would cause such disruption to their comfortable school ecosystem. Others barely bother to disguise their prejudices. 40 years after Chevalier set New Boy and over 400 years after Shakespeare penned Othello, and we still have a lot to learn from the story. New Boy demonstrates that — in the words of Lindsey Lee Johnson — school really can be the most dangerous place on Earth.

Disclaimer: New Boy was published by Vintage Books / Hogarth on 11 May 2017. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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