I have ambivalent feelings towards Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy. Everything I would label as a weakness is either justified within the text, or partially required by her allegiance to her inspiration: Othello. New Boy is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare project which asks modern authors for retellings of Shakespeare’s works. Some of Chevalier’s nods to Othello are clever, but some are gimmicky because conflicts originally depicted between adults can’t be mapped 1:1 onto 11-year-olds at recess. Since every negative is at least partially justifiable, I’m going to break from my usual format and adopt a criticism/response style. I usually recommend books to people because I think they’ll enjoy them, but I’m going to recommend New Boy to hear what my fellow bloggers and friends make of it.
Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a 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.
Everything occurs within a single school day, but Chevalier doesn’t let anything happen without explaining how it fits into the playground’s social hierarchy or into a character’s arc, or its function as a statement on gender/race/society, etc. There are heaps of flashbacks and establishing details. So many are offered that otherwise tense scenes are interrupted to explain something that the reader has picked up on already, either from previous flashbacks or from observing the characters. The short time frame requires these clarifications, but their overabundance makes it clear that a one-day setting is less than ideal. Also, the heavy/poetic descriptions of love and betrayal don’t ring quite true.
The short time frame increases the tension and simulates the heightened emotions you’d get in a play. Also, splitting the sections by school period smooths transitions, keeps the focus on the kids’ interactions, grounds the story in time, and charmingly mimics the structure of a play. As to the endless cutaways? Well, surely some readers enjoy a barrage of minute details…
The narrative voice is childlike. It speaks simply and overuses never (76 times) and always (44 times). (When running a search on my Kindle, I noticed an unhighlighted “never” so these counts may actually be too low.) It adds to the schoolyard vibe, but it’s monotonous. The voice can’t decide whether it wants to transport the reader back to an eleven-year-old’s way of thinking, or be an adult to explain social interactions for the reader. Is it a voice from the playground? Or the voice of a Psych 101 professor?
Man, does this book bring back memories of recess! As I read, I remembered turning ropes for double-dutch and eating honeysuckle on the swings with startling clarity. Chevalier’s simple prose gives just enough that the reader can add in the details from their own childhood to fill in scenes. Every playground stereotype is present, so New Boy is guaranteed to trigger a memory for the reader. Sure, the kids speak like adults, but they tend to do so in scenes where they’re adopting their parents’ (society’s) views on race or acting the way they think they “should” act. Why shouldn’t the kids analyze their actions and motives with an air of self-awareness? Everyone thinks they’ve got it all figured out no matter what their age.
Why middle-schoolers? I hope this was inspired by something more than to be as different from Othello as possible. The ending is too much for the story. It’s not dramatic—it’s exaggerated and overdone. It’s hard to imagine the conclusion developing organically outside Othello‘s influence.
If the group were any younger, it wouldn’t work. If they were adults, it would be too similar to the original play. This book should nod to Othello, not seek to recreate it.
Why can’t anyone have a frank conversation? One line of dialogue could fix everything. This is more frustrating because we hear again and again how intelligent Dee and Osei are. Can they really be so oblivious?
…because it’s a tragedy? And they’re children—middle-schoolers don’t speak plainly to their crushes.
Why does Dee have to be ridiculously special? She’s so unusual that Chevalier can’t even describe her in the usual ways. After describing Dee as beautiful, she explains how this word isn’t typically used for a child, but that Dee is the exception. She’s also the teacher’s pet and popular. She’s smart, likable, beautiful (apparently), and every kind of awesome with a side of awesome. Is the point supposed to be that racism is so entrenched that the only kid who can see Osei as a person is the super-special one? Maybe, but this is dangerously close to the reason Atticus Finch has to be perfect and he made me roll my eyes too. Even when perfect in service to a larger point, superlative characters are one-dimensional and boring. Somewhat ironically, Osei’s own super-specialness complicates things. He’s the son of a diplomat and lives on the wealthy side of town; even if he were white, there’d be a culture gap between him and the other kids.
Of course everyone is a bit flat and set in their roles. It’s based on a play. These characters are a distillation of [something something] which strengthens the [yada yada]. Hrm. I don’t have a proper response to this criticism… Flat characters and slim development only work for me in satire or very short fiction.
Overall: 3.4 There are some strong moments, but I grew tired of having the story over-explained. So many tangents and flashbacks kept the action at a distance, which made it feel shallow. As a retelling of Othello, it’s creative and features some inventive tributes. If I’d read it in school alongside the play, the class discussion would have been much livelier.
Translation: Read it. I really want to hear what other people think of this book.
NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing, Hogarth (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads