Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

NewBoyAbout the Book

‘O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back.’

Arriving at his fourth school in six 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 practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching 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.

Format: eBook, paperback (183 pp.) Publisher: Random House UK/Vintage
Published: 11th May 2017                    Genre: Literary Fiction

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Find New Boy: Othello Retold on Goodreads


My Review

New Boy: Othello Retold is the fifth in a series of retellings of Shakespeare plays by bestselling novelists as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Other writers who have contributed so far are Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood. You can find out more about the project here.

I always approach a retelling of a classic in something of a quandary.   To be successful, I feel a reinterpretation needs to shed new light on the original work.   A good example that always comes to mind is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea which presented a very different picture of the character of Bertha Mason from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  On the other hand, a retelling needs to be recognisably linked to its source material. But if you’re not familiar with the source material, do you get the same value from the retelling? Conversely, if you are familiar with the source material, do you lose focus on the new interpretation because you’re constantly looking for the connections with the original? Although well-written, in the end I was left ambivalent about New Boy.

The action takes place over a single school day giving a sense of a timescale similar to watching the play. The book is divided into five parts – Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess and After School – mirroring the five act structure of Shakespeare’s play. There are also references to acting and performance scattered throughout the book.

Then Dee gave the boy the precious class jump ropes, and they began to laugh, throwing their heads back as if there were no audience but the two of them, performing for each other.’

‘And himself, the new boy, standing still in the midst of these well-worn grooves, playing his part too.’

‘They were like characters in a play who needed an extra scene, a thread to pull them tight.’

In spite of the variation in names, it’s a simple matter to match the children and staff in the book with their equivalent characters in the play. I did find the ‘casting’ of Brabantio (Desdemona’s father in the play) as Mr Brabant, the teacher, slightly puzzling. But perhaps the author had in mind the role of teacher as ‘in loco parentis’.

The setting of the school playground with its petty rivalries and short-lived alliances was interesting. In the main, the characters were believable as eleven year-old children. The exception to this was Ian (who doubles for Iago). He seemed unrealistically wise beyond his years and his ability to manipulate, read others’ intentions and strategize just didn’t ring true for someone of his age.

What the book does very well is convey Osei’s feelings of being an outsider, of being different, of being regarded as something of a novelty and the casual, ‘everyday’ racism he experiences.

‘The kids who were friendly at school but didn’t ask him to their birthday parties even when they had invited the rest of the class….The assumption that he was better at sports because black people just – you know – are, or at dancing, or at committing crimes. The way people talked about Africa as if it were just one country.’

Unfortunately, I feel the children’s – and to some extent, the staff’s – sketchy knowledge of Osei’s cultural background and the fact he’s forced to simplify his name would be recognisable today. I’ve experienced situations in the workplace where people from India or Nigeria have found it easier to ‘anglicise’ their name or adopt a nickname rather than try to get colleagues to pronounce their given name correctly.

Although the book held my interest, in a way I felt it would have worked equally well as a story about difference and racial prejudice without the constraints of following the story of Othello.

I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Random House UK, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Thought-provoking, imaginative, intertextual

Try something similar…Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

TracyChevalierAbout the Author

TRACY CHEVALIER is the New York Times bestselling author of eight previous novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into 39 languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she lives in London with her husband and son.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

  1. I didn’t know about this series of Shakespeare retellings! Thanks for sharing this review – I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring years ago so when I saw this I wondered at how different this new book was. I’m not sure how I feel about retellings and the problems you suggest are legitimate. It’s hard not to compare to the original, but as you say, if you’re busy doing that, is that a distraction? Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I enjoyed the book but once you know it’s a retelling it’s hard not to have that at the forefront of your mind. It won’t stop me searching out some of the others in the series. I’ve read good reviews of Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the series – Hag-Seed based on The Tempest. But then she can do little wrong in my eyes…

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