Let me begin with three quick reviews, and then I’ll gush about Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, which I literally just finished.
- Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier — INCREDIBLE. Read on the recommendation of a friend who loves this book, and I totally understand. It’s piracy and English society and just delightful. Plus, the ending isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s perfection. This is a book I know I will go back and read again, simply for the joy of joining Dona on her adventures with a French pirate.
- Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan — Short, interesting book about the last night a Red Lobster is open and the lengths to which the staff (especially the long-suffering manager) go to trying to keep the place open during a nightmare snowstorm. It’s quick, pretty fun, full of quirky observations about people and how we do the jobs we have.
- The Gunslinger by Stephen King — Only picked this up because the trailer dropped for the movie starring Idris Elba and I figured I’d give it a shot. It’s fine. It’s also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read, so I think I was just expecting a little more. Concept of an old-west-style gunslinger going around trying to save the world from the Man in Black is pretty cool, but I expected a little more craft in the writing. And maybe it’s because I read an early paperback (apparently there were changes made as the series progressed, so I might have a different experience if I read the revised one), but I just wanted… more. I’m still interested in the movie, but I won’t be reading the rest of the 8-book series.
But let me tell you about New Boy.
So I’m a sucker for most British fiction (I wrote a Master’s thesis on the masculine relationships in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester novels, for heaven’s sake), but Jane Austen and William Shakespeare are two of my real weak spots. The Jane Austen Project, which I have discussed previously, has apparently hit a roadblock of some kind because there’s been no update. But the Hogarth Shakespeare series is still going. I’m a little frustrated by the amount of time between releases (Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth was supposed to be last year, but has now been pushed to 2018 and Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet is currently at an estimated 2021 release), but there’s a new one said to be coming this October, though that might have been pushed back (Edward St. Aubyn’s King Lear retelling said to be titled Dunbar) and there’s New Boy that just fell onto shelves today.
And I think I’m going to put it in second place of my favorites of the series thus far.
Chevalier takes on the tragedy Othello, which is one of my least-favorite plays. I have a hard time believing the drama of the play, but I can understand that, if the actors are chosen well and have real chemistry, it can be an amazing show. So how do you retell Othello in 200 pages after setting it in 1970s Washington, D.C.?
The trick of New Boy is in its employment of Aristotelean unities: action, time, and place. The unity of action is a little muddled in this one, simply because capturing the Shakespearean scope requires subplots, details of the lives of the characters that are going to influence the main relationship (Osei and Dee). Unity of time is perfectly used, limiting the action itself to a single school day and breaking up chapters by which recess it is. Flashbacks allow character development and fill in the gaps of the time period — the racial tension is especially handled here as Osei thinks about his sister and her understanding of her African-ness after their repeated moves with their diplomat-father. Unity of place is also neatly utilized, keeping to the schoolyard that so many readers will remember. The girls jumprope, the boys play kickball, and all of the students in the 6th grade class wonder about next year when they go to a new school.
With the unities, the story’s tensions ramp up quickly and effectively. Sure, there’s some difficulty believing that the playground antics of troublemaker Ian would move this quickly, and obviously there’s some tragic conclusion (because it’s not like you can just make Othello end happily every after), but this is a Shakespearean drama. It’s not unexpected improbability.
For me, the strength of the novel was Osei’s insights into being not only the new boy, but the new black boy at a school made up entirely of white students and teachers. From the beginning, Osei is surrounded by speculation — is he from Guinea, Nigeria? “Africa, anyway,” the teachers say. (He’s actually from Ghana.) But Osei has also moved several times and recognizes the similarities in being the new kid on the playground. He tries to fit in, tries to prove himself while not upsetting the already established social structure. He recognizes that it’s hard to be African in America, let alone African American, remembers his experience in New York where he got beaten up at school and where his sister started exploring the politics of being black in America.
It’s powerful to have the insight into a young character who has so much on his mind. He wants to make friends, wants to be accepted, wants to not be the odd-man out anymore. (And it doesn’t help that he moves schools with only a few months left in the year.) Knowing how the story must end, not necessarily with death, but at least with tragedy, it’s heartbreaking to watch Osei trying so hard when you know that Ian is going to destroy it all.
That’s why I have to give this second place, right after Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (Taming of the Shrew), and it’s only second because I like the play of Shrew more than Othello. But it’s a tight race with these two. Out of the five books in the series out so far, I think Chevalier has done the best job of capturing the play and retelling it with her own twist. Vinegar Girl was fun and pretty cute and just enough of Shrew to make me happy. Otherwise, Hag-Seed (Margaret Atwood’s Tempest) was kind of weird but great at the end, and Shylock Is My Name (Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice) and The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson’s Winter’s Tale) were both a little beyond my literary enjoyment. This isn’t to say that they aren’t good books — all of the writers so far have been very talented, and their work is crafted well. I just think there’s more spirit captured in Vinegar Girl and New Boy. But especially in New Boy.
This book gives me hope for St. Aubyn’s addition to the series — I LOVE King Lear (I’m the youngest of three daughters and I love Shakespeare’s take on history and politics, so that might have something to do with it) — because it makes me think maybe some of these retellings will keep to the parts of the plays that I love. Chevalier has convinced me to keep waiting for the next installment, and I definitely recommend this one.
New Boy is available now from your local indie!