Tracy Chevalier: New Boy (Othello Retold) – review

newboyAuthor: Tracy Chevalier
Publish Date: 11 May 2017
Genre: Shakespeare, drama
Audience: Young adult, adult fiction

a8fd6-5star

This book first came to my attention from my mum, who is a big lover of Tracy Chevalier, and as one of my A Level texts is ‘Othello’ by Shakespeare, she thought I might like to read it. I was instantly intrigued, as one of my favourite parts of studying Shakespeare is how fascinating it is that his stories can translate into a modern context so effortlessly, and this is no exception.

‘New Boy’ puts the story of ‘Othello’ into a 1970s American school, the characters transformed into 11 year old children. Whilst the characters have taken on these wildly different personas, they are instantly recognisable – not only by their names (e.g. Othello = Osei, Desdemona = Dee, etc) but by their actions too. Chevalier has perfectly captured every single characters’ thoughts and behaviour, and the novel being written with an omniscient narrative allows her to fully explore this. One character which particularly stands out is Chevalier’s portrayal of Iago (renamed Ian). He is so deliciously evil throughout, possessing an utterly slimy and perverted edge as he frequently comments on the girls in the playground, whilst remaining an old-school bully who steals other children’s lunch money.

In addition, Chevalier’s writing is utterly gripping. Not only do all of the characters possess an extremely accurate voice, but the narration fits perfectly in places where Shakespeare’s soliloquies would be taking place – in particular, Chevalier often gives Ian significant moments of internal reflection which line up with his soliloquies in the play, and it is delectably clever. The pacing of the novel is also incredible as the destruction and turmoil is so fast-paced, not only in the actual structure (as the novel takes place in one single day), but in how addictive it is as well – ‘New Boy’ is a true page turner.

I mentioned earlier that I was fascinated by how Shakespeare’s plots can be translated so effortlessly into a modern context, and Chevalier’s use of this really blew me away. 1970s America is such a perfect setting for ‘Othello’, as racism was still believably prominent and provides effectively unjustified intentions for the characters. Using 11 year olds as the given form of these characters is also a flawless move from Chevalier, as there is a perfect amount of naivety installed into them, with influences from parents and a longing to possess more authority than they actually hold – these features are ones which, unbelievably, are also noticeable in the original play. There are also nursery rhymes placed at the start of every ‘act’ which relates to the plot, and this too is extremely clever, reasserting both the naivety and the cruelty of the characters and their intentions. The ending of ‘New Boy’ is awfully ingenious, reflecting the true downfall of the characters, but in an incredibly original way – the last few pages will leave you truly shocked at the cruelty of it all, even if you know the ending.

Overall, ‘New Boy’ is an addictive and clever read from Tracy Chevalier, which perfectly captures the essence of the original Shakespeare play. The writing is gripping, creating a true page turner, and once again, Shakespeare proves to be accessible and relatable in this day and age. Whether you’re interested in Shakespeare’s stories but don’t know where to start, or, like me, are already fascinated by his work, Chevalier’s retelling of ‘Othello’ in ‘New Boy’ is an absolute treasure of a read.

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