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Shakespeare Retold: Othello – New Boy Tracy Chevalier

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While our shadow panel is hard at work reading though the 2017 Man Booker longlist, we’ll be posted a few of the book reviews for books we managed to finish shortly before the longlist announcement. Book Worm takes the lead with her review of Tracy Chevalier’s new book, New Boy.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Published in: 2017
Reviewed by: Book Worm
Rating: ★★★
Find it here: New Boy

This ARC was provided by Random House UK(via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

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.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970’s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking 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.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: Othello was one of the Shakespearian plays I actually studied at college. While I can remember very little of the finer details, I do remember that it was a play about passion, sex and jealously.  I also remember that none of us were as passionate as Othello himself. When asked what we would do in Othello’s situation, almost everyone said we would want our loved one to be happy and we would let them go. That would have made for a very boring play.

There are a lot of reviews on Goodreads that criticize Chevalier for setting the whole book over just a single day and I think those criticisms are right. This is supposed to be a story about deeply felt emotions. How emotionally attached can you get to someone between the start of school and home time? I liked the way the supposed betrayal was set up, but this still could have worked set over a longer time period.

Now onto the characters. These are 11 year olds. They are in their final year at grade school. Friendships and alliances are already in place so would the introduction a new pupil really cause that much disruption with only weeks left to the summer holidays and a whole new school? I am not sure.  Bullying and exclusion of the new boy yes, but an out and out scheme to destroy him?

The children seemed to be confused by how they are supposed to act. At one point they are snogging each other’s faces off and talking of going out together. The next moment they are  playing jump rope. This felt jarring.  They were either too young for kissing (maybe I had a sheltered life but I feel at 11 this is the case) or they were too old for jump rope. I could not image a child/ teenager doing both, especially children in the 1970s, which I am lead to believe was a more innocent time.

Personally I feel this would have been a better retelling if the characters were older say 15 or 16, when you really feel things passionately and a betrayal in love can feel like the end of the world.  I would have also allowed O and Dee a longer courtship and relationship before Ian steps in to ruin things.

What this retelling does do well is that it highlights the casual racism present in the school system at that time period, from the teachers down, and in some places this attitude does still exist.

Who would like this? Those of you like me who are reading the Shakespeare Retold series will read this regardless of any bad reviews, so definitely one for you. I would also say it could be a useful tool for introducing younger readers to the basic plot of Othello before tackling the real thing.

Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: New Boy

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? 

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tracy S #

    I was really looking forward to this one. I’m still going to read it, because, Shakespeare. But I’ll have to see if my book triplet and I agree…

    Like

    August 1, 2017
  2. Loved your review – honest, and pertinent.

    Like

    August 2, 2017

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