Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2019

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

I don’t know what possessed Tracy Chevalier to write this unsubtle little novel, and I can’t adequately explain why I didn’t abandon it except to admit that I read it to discover just how she resolved it.  The book is part of the Hogarth Press’s misconceived project to retell Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s based on Othello…

At first I thought I’d accidentally picked up a YA title, or even a children’s book, because the prose is so flat and mundane, and alas, there are authors who think that’s appropriate for younger readers.  This impression is bolstered by the crude framing of the story: it is set in a Washington school, told from the perspective of its eleven-year-old protagonists.  There are also cardboard-cut-out schoolteachers all conforming nicely to stereotypes.  Parents, as so often in children’s stories, are elsewhere.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Chevalier consulted Wikipedia for Othello’s character list and the plot, without having any idea about the emotion-charged complexities of the play. The new boy in the playground is O (Osei), the widely-travelled son of a Ghanaian diplomat.  He corresponds to Othello, and Dee (short for Daniela) corresponds to Desdemona, whose first reaction to his arrival is this:

She had lived her life on the playground, laughed and cried and had crushes and formed friendships and made few enemies. It was her world, so familiar she took it for granted. In a month she would be leaving it for junior high.

Now someone new and different had entered the territory, and this made Dee look at the space anew and suddenly find it shabby, and herself an alien in it.  Like him. (p5)

Mr Brabant, the racist teacher full of barely suppressed rage is Brabantio; the Machiavellian school bully Ian is Iago; and a strawberry pencil case replaces the handkerchief that causes so much trouble in Othello.  Eleven-year-olds barely into puberty replace the fraught relationships from the stage.

The depiction of overt and casual racism is laid on with a trowel:

He was moving now.  Not like a bear, with its bulky, lumbering gait.  More like a wolf, or—Dee tried to think of dark animals—a panther, scaled up from house cats.  Whatever he was thinking—probably about being the new boy in a playground full of strangers the opposite colour from him—he padded towards the school doors where the teachers waited with the unconscious assurance of someone who knows how his body works.  Dee felt her chest tighten.  She drew in a breath.
‘Well, well, Mr Brabant remarked.  ‘I think I hear drums.’
Miss Lode, the other sixth grade teacher standing next to him, tittered. ‘Where did Mrs Duke say he’s from?’
‘Guinea, I think.  Or was it Nigeria?  Africa, anyway.’
‘He’s yours, isn’t he? Better you than me.’ Miss Lode smoothed her skirt and touched her earrings, perhaps to make sure they were still there. (p.6)

The entire action is compressed into a single day, scenes chronologically corresponding to before school, recess, lunch, recess and after school, and it culminates with a dénouement shoehorned into absurdity.   I cannot imagine who the intended audience is meant to be.

Don’t say you weren’t warned…

Update: Don’t take my word for it, read Elle’s incisive review at Elle Thinks as well.

Author: Tracy Chevalier
Title: New Boy
Publisher: Hogarth (Penguin Random House UK), 2017, 188 pages
ISBN: 9781781090329
Source: Greater Dandenong Libraries


Responses

  1. Sad that she didn’t get it right. Chevalier has written quite readable historical fiction, that I’ve read over the past few years.

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    • To be fair, it’s a very difficult task. Which is why I think that divorcing The Bard from his era, an era which explains a lot, is such a bad idea.

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  2. I enjoyed her early work but haven’t been that interested in more recent stuff. This sounds like a poor idea poorly executed

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    • I agree. I found it hard to believe that this came from the same pen as Girl with a Pearl earring…
      How are things in NZ?

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      • Still stuck in Nelson. Hoped to have had the exit tunnel by now but will be reviewed on Thursday….

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        • Is there a good bookshop, to tide you over?

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          • One close to the hotel but as I mentioned in another response, I’m not going to buy anything because of the cost…..

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        • Thinking of you Karen … hope you are on the move soon and that your partner is on the up?

          Liked by 1 person

          • We got the good news yesterday that he is now cleared to go home. So we have a flight booked for Sunday. It’s going to be a long long and arduous trip and he’ll need a lot of follow up back in UK but at least he is not stuck in a hospital bed. As lovely as New Zealand is, I’m not sorry to be going home :)

            Liked by 1 person

            • Safe travels, Karen:)

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            • Great to hear Karen. What a shame for you. You will be very pleased though to be in familiar surroundings. I hope he continues to improve… And quickly.

              Poor New Zealand. Glad you are north of Christchurch.

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              • Yes, you will find that airport security is stricter, and there may be some delays. A sadly necessary hazard.
                Such a dreadful thing…I feel numb.

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  3. Yup. I’ll most definitely be avoiding this! :D

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Heh. This nearly drove me round the bend when I read it, as well. The correlations felt so one-to-one: plot point here, character name there, without the slightest thought to the relationships that underpin the play. Massive missed opportunity.

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  5. Wow. Don’t hold back! Lol. I’ve not read her though have heard good reviews on ‘Pearl Earring’. I’M happy not to rush out and buy yet another book I can’t live without. 🤠🐧

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    • I really liked Girl with a Pearl Earring, and also The Lady and the Unicorn (which were both art-related fiction which I really like). I quite enjoyed Remarkable Creatures for much the same reason as Sue (below) but Falling Angels was a dud, Burning Bright was a dud and now this one is a dud. So 3/5, that’s it for me unless a blogger I trust writes a glowing review and tempts me back again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I reviewed Chevalier’s The Last Runaway a couple of years ago, about the ‘Underground Railroad’ – good whites saving runaway slaves. You and I discussed ‘good whites’ afterwards. I think it would make 4/6.

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      • Very sad when you love an author and they go off a bit.

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  6. Love your opening para. And you raise an interesting point about the intended audience.

    I enjoyed Girl with a pearl earring, and later, Remarkable creatures (because of Lyme and the JA period/connection) but, while I’m sure I’d have found others of her books enjoyable, she’s low priority for me in terms of my reading time. I didn’t even know this one existed.

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