The latest release in the Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Tracy Chevalier, best known for her works of historical fiction, transforming the tale of Othello into the antics of the school playground. Of the novels published in this project so far, this is the first to be based upon a play that I’m familiar with, and as such I’ve been excited to read New Boy since I picked it up at this year’s Hay Festival.
Set in 1974, it is Osei’s (“call me O”) first day in a school in Washington D.C. As the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Osei is used to moving around a lot and to being the new boy in class. Expecting the usual difficulty in integrating and forming friendships, he’s surprised when he immediately hits it off with Dee who has been asked to show him around and to look after him.
But one pupil, Ian, can’t bear to see the developing friendship between Dee and Osei, and sets in motion a series of events that will leave everyone – pupils and teachers alike – reeling by the end of the day.
I found it surprising how well the tale of Othello translates to a school playground in America, and as the son of diplomat, Chevalier is able to instil in Osei all the elements that make Othello notable – not just the colour of his skin, but also his experiences and greater “worldly wisdom” in having travelled further than most. Osei has lived in London, Rome and New York, and these experiences make him wiser (although not necessarily academically smarter – moving around so much means that you’re bound to miss a few classes) in many ways from the pupils who’ve only ever lived in one house and attended one school with the same set of children.
I thought that Chevalier did well to capture the attitudes of the time without overdoing the detail. The teachers, particularly My Brabant, are not subtle in their attitudes, and don’t hide the fact that they expect Osei to make trouble, even though he doesn’t do anything to draw attention to himself. The children also have the casual racism that you associate with those who pick up soundbites from their parents and the other adults around them but without fully understanding what they are talking about.
And I loved the playground setting, with all the unspoken rules and hierarchy that entails, and particularly the “relationships” formed in the morning and broken off by the end of the day. There is a sexual undercurrent to the play, and I did wonder if this might have worked better had the pupils been slightly older. In New Boy, they are approaching the end of sixth grade (11 – 12 years old for those not familiar with the American system – I had to look it up!), and some of the references to “going all the way” seemed a little incongruous. That said, this tale wouldn’t have worked so well overall if they had been older, and it made the story even more shocking given their ages. And by that age, they are likely to have some understanding, if not experience, of such things.
The action in New Boy takes place over the course of a single day, and is set mainly in the breaks between classes as well as before and after school. At approx. 200 pages, it’s a quick read, and I read it in a single sitting. It’s incredibly compelling, and whilst I wasn’t expecting a happy ending (Othello is a tragedy, after all), I couldn’t help but hope for a pleasant outcome, as I really liked Osei and Dee. And there are parts of this that are surprisingly dark, particularly when considering the setting and the age of the protagonists.
I loved all of the little references to Shakespeare’s original play, and found that these fit naturally with the story Chevalier chose to tell. This is particularly true of the names that Chevalier has assigned – I thought that these all tied up brilliantly with the play, particularly Mr Brabant – Dee’s teacher. Don’t let this put you off if you’re not familiar with Othello, however – you won’t feel lost if you don’t pick up on these references. I absolutely loved New Boy, and I thought it was a very successful translation of the original play.