The New Boy - Tracy Chevalier

May 8, 2018

4 / 5 Stars

 

An unusual reinterpretation of Othello, which for the most part worked well.

I'd already read (and enjoyed) Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest in Hagseed, so was very much looking forward to Tracy Chevalier's attempt on another classic Shakespeare play.

As we all know, Othello is an exploration of jealousy and deception, and also of race. As such, it was an interesting decision to place the action in a primary school playground - however, it translated more successfully than I initially predicted.

 

 


O joins a new school right at the end of year 6 (in the 1970s). He anticipates problems, mainly due to his skin colour - as the only black child in the school, he knows he's going to get questions at best, and insults and abuse at worst.

He doesn't anticipate meeting Dee; a beautiful, sensitive girl who immediately becomes his friend. In the space of a morning, they've already 'fallen' for one another, and thus far, the romance is looking rosy. However, neither are aware that Ian, the school machiavelli, is busy hatching a plan that will have dire consequences for the pair of them. 

First off - the school setting. Amazingly, the key themes of Othello translate well in a younger setting, and despite the fact that the characters were all students and teachers, it felt quite true to the original plot. It helps that there's something about the school atmosphere that lends itself well to this type of story - the inability for students to escape, the tyranny of the teachers... it all helps to create a 'pressure cooker' environment where things look set to combust at any moment. 

Likewise, the characters were very relateable. Although a white writer, I think Chevalier did a good job at capturing the obstacles that a black child would have faced in an all-white school in the 70s. O is a sympathetic character, but like Othello, is cursed with a fatal flaw; finding it difficult to control his jealousy and anger. 

Dee is very true to Desdemona too - right down to the insipidness, which annoyed me in the Shakespeare play and continues to irritate me in this version. However, I can't hold that against the author - she's only writing in-line with the original. 

The character that I thought worked especially well was Ian - our Iago of the tale. I especially loved the hint of backstory; those little moments that indicated why he might be motivated to behave so despicably. As the villain of the piece, he was surprisingly well-rounded, but this didn't make him any more likeable. Fascinating and repugnant in equal measures. 

There were a few moments where I found myself wondering if an 11 year old child would speak in such a sophisticated way; and these did jar a little - but it wasn't a major problem. Overall, an engaging, interesting interpretation and worth reading.

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