Book review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is the fifth in an ongoing series of Shakespeare plays reimagined as novels, and sees the characters and plot of Othello transplanted to an American primary school in the 1970s. I have some misgivings about the wisdom of attempting to rewrite the Bard, as I did with The Austen Project '“ didn't the author nail it the first time? '“ but the interest comes in whether or not a modern setting can reveal new truths about the narrative.

Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier

Osei, or O, is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, the new boy at an otherwise all-white, middle-class school. An outsider all his life, he has been educated all over the world but only feels at home when in Ghana, where the colour of his skin doesn’t mark him out as different.

He has developed coping mechanisms, keeping his head down, proving himself in playground sports and forming quick alliances. This kind of background certainly explains why he might take pride in his status and his uniqueness and also why he might be sensitive to perceived slights, making him an easy target for someone seeking to manipulate him.

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He is a victim both of the casual racism which the children have picked up from their parents and his teachers’ more insidious feelings towards him. Given the all-consuming importance of popularity and relationship politics to children of this age, and the cruelty which children can inflict on each other, the actions of the pre-teen protagonists are not surprising, although the ease with which these 11-year-olds appear to articulate their feelings doesn’t always ring true. Chevalier is at her best when describing the tenderness of young love or conveying the inner thoughts of her protagonists.

Characters in the Shakespeare play retain soundalike names, which is a handy aide memoire if you are keeping an eye on the original. Iago is Ian, the class bully who terrorises younger children for fun; Desdemona is Dee, teacher’s pet and golden girl; Emilia is embodied in Mimi; while Mr Brabant, the class teacher who favours Dee and is disdainful of O, stands for Brabantio.

Chevalier deftly and succinctly gives them all more of a backstory than Shakespeare ever allowed, which might appeal to anyone long frustrated with the question of Iago’s motivation.

The time frame is a little rushed, but transposing this story to the playground makes absolute sense. It is of interest as an exercise in illustrating the universality of the original, and works equally well as a standalone piece which tells of a tightly wound, intimately imagined situation hurtling towards inevitable tragedy.

*New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, Hogarth Shakespeare, £12.99