By Tracy Chevalier
Penguin Random House | Hogarth
Release Date (Hardback): May 16, 2017
Othello is William Shakespeare’s tragedy about the jealous rage of the eponymous Moor, the fate of his fair and artless wife, Desdemona, and the machinations of Othello’s Ancient, Iago. Set on the exotic eastern Mediterranean island of Venetian Cyprus, Othello’s role as defender is rendered moot when the Ottoman Empire’s fleet founders in a storm; but isolates the key players in a foreign milieu.
Tracy Chevalier has chosen to re-interpret Shakespeare’s play through the lens of her own experience as a white “minority… growing up in Washington, D.C.” (from tchevalier.com.) The author has set New Boy in a public elementary school in the DC Metro area (in 1974) wherein a Ghanian boy is the student introduced into a playground of all white children and teachers. Setting the action of the novel in a place where “kids get together at recess and break up at lunch time,” and where such trial relationships are often intense if ephemeral, rings true; and mirrors Shakespeare’s Cyprian island in its physically limited venue away from home. But it also poses the first issue of the novel in that in inverting the racial composition of the community, the author has completely subverted the WDC culture; and readers familiar with the area and time period will immediately sense the forced contrivance.
Where Ms Chevalier succeeds is in the POV of Dee (the Desdemona surrogate,) the white girl who becomes quickly fascinated with the black student, Osei (Othello); Dee seems to have the most depth of the characters, though the aggressive pursuit of a relationship with Osei seems a bit mature for a pre-pubescent; and ahead of her time in its progressive aspect. Nonetheless, she negotiates the school with an artlessness that seems genuine. Unfortunately, the other characters are rendered as flat stereotypes such as the racist teacher, the popular boy, the schoolyard bully, etc.
Moreover, while The Bard’s play includes the issue of racism (as epitomized in Desdemona’s father,) the issue of Othello’s blackness is muted by his military successes and the esteem of his colleagues. Ms Chevalier touches very briefly on non-racial themes in her novel; but it is, by and large a book reduced to the racial aspect. The jealousies of Osei (Othello,) Rod (Rodrigo) and Ian (Iago) are all predicated on the issue of Osei being black. By reducing Othello into a story solely about race, the other themes are underdeveloped and/or nonexistent in Tracy Chevalier’s re-telling.
Overall, this was an extremely disappointing read; and underscores a personal suspicion that the idea of the Hogarth Shakespeare series is more appealing than any of its actual executions.
OTHER: I received an Advanced Reader’s Edition of New Boy (by Tracy Chevalier) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. I receive no monies, goods or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.