Title: New Boy
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: General Fiction (Adult)
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier is the latest book in the Hogarth Shakespeare project. This project takes today’s noted authors and asks them to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience. So far, the project has tackled the likes of The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest with authors Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood respectively. New Boy is Chevalier’s take on Othello.
Before going into this review, I will admit that I have never seen or read Othello – it’s not a play I know much about. I have, however, read a few other retellings so had a vague notion of the plot before going in. That being said, on reading up on the original play after reading, I was impressed by how well Chevalier had been able to capture the essence of the story, and a few key details, in the story she decided to write.
For New Boy takes the tragedy of Othello, with all the drama and betrayal, and places it in the setting of a primary school, with a cast of 11-year-olds (and two teachers). This was probably the most impressive part of this novel for me, particularly with regards to how well it worked. All the themes of Othello were transplanted into this school-setting and everything made perfect sense.
Much like the play, this book takes place over the course of several acts. In New Boy’s case, it took place during the breaks and before and after school. This meant that nearly the majority of the book occurred on the school playground, with very little interference from the adults. And, when there was that interference, it suited the plot and the progression of Othello in the school-setting. I thought the decision to have the book primarily set in those breaks, on the playground, really added to the experience of reading, especially as it was a clear demonstration of the story progressing, without the tedium of lessons. It allowed the characters to interact more freely and helped with both the pacing and the character development.
As with many other retellings of Othello, the main conflicts revolve around race, with Osei (the Othello-character) being the sole black child in the entire school, and jealousy, with Ian (the Iago-character) feeling threatened by Osei’s arrival. Osei is also the book’s eponymous new boy so also carries that weight with him as well. While having no experience of being black (or male for that matter), I could relate to Osei’s experience of being the new student, particularly part way through the school year, and thought Chevalier captured various aspects of this experience really well.
Osei himself was an interesting character – the son of a diplomat, with a calm exterior but a well of emotion inside. This paralleled nicely with Dee, the school’s star pupil, who wears her heart on her sleeve. Their relationship, a cute affection for one another which went no further than typical playground relationships normally go, brought out the uglier sides of students and teachers alike, while highlighting the racism demonstrated by both. The other students played their parts perfectly well as well, being both likeable and unwitting players in the drama which unfolded alike (well, except for Ian who was very much involved).
All in all, I found this retelling to be a really enjoyable read. The story flowed and I found myself moving through it with ease, savouring each moment. It captured the original play beautifully while also creating a story which felt new and relatable. Not only that, but the implanting of a tragedy into a school setting really highlighted how applicable these stories still are today (while also demonstrating that children are just plain cruel).
New Boy will be released on 11th May.
The Book Depository (I receive a small commission when this link is used): https://www.bookdepository.com/New-Boy–Hogarth-Shakespeare-/9781781090312/?a_aid=rosienreads