I think we keep returning to tragedies with the vague hope that this time things will work out differently. I’ve always felt that about Shakespeare’s tragedies because, after the first reading or viewing, I could see all of the places where things could have gone differently. If only someone had gotten Hamlet into grief counseling…If only someone had told Richard III to shove it the first time he tried to talk that someone into something…If only Othello had listened to Desdemona…I suppose this is why I’ve been paying such close attention to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier, is a retelling of Othello—one of my favorite plays—but transplanted to a playground in Washington, D.C., sometime in the late 1970s. The story plays out over one day, the day that Osei is the new boy at the unnamed elementary school. I’ll admit that the setting had me fooled at first. It seemed like such a radical departure from the original setting and age of the characters. But even though the characters in this version of the story are sixth-graders, I could see the same path towards tragedy start to take shape as the kids meet for recess, lunch, and after school.
Like the original Othello, New Boy is very much about race and jealousy. Osei here is the son of a Ghanan diplomat who has just been transferred from New York. It’s the fourth school the boy has attended in just a few short years. He knows how to be the new kid, but it’s harder in America where he has been the only black student. The white adults and children react to him either with angry racism, ostracism, or a bewildered kind of liberal tolerance that makes me cringe because it’s really just a different form of racism.
Osei might have been able to weather all this if it hadn’t been for Dee and Ian. Dee is the only classmate who makes an effort to get to know Osei. They fascinate each other by lunch time but, unbeknownst to them, Ian has already started plotting his potential rival’s downfall. Even more than the original Iago, Ian finds it easy to tap into the racism of his classmates. Without that racism—and without Osei’s experience of racism every where he goes—this story might have turned out differently this time.
New Boy is a short novel. It doesn’t need more than five acts set over a single day to do its work. I wasn’t sure about the setting at first, but in Chevalier’s hands the playground and the children make the original story even more tragic than the original. Reading this book is like watching a disaster unfold and not be able to do anything to stop it before you yourself get blown up in the catastrophe. This retelling affected me more than any of the others I’ve yet read.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 May 2017.