New Boy by Tracy Chevalier: A review

Okay. I tried. I really did. I tried to like Tracy Chevalier's new book but I just couldn't get into it. I admit part of the problem may have been the constant distractions of the holiday season during which I was reading it.

This is another in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which modern writers reimagine Shakespeare's works in their own settings and plots. Chevalier took Othello as her source and pattern. That would be a daunting task for anyone.

She chose to retell the story of the Moor of Venice as essentially a YA novel featuring the characters as 11-year-old schoolchildren. All the action takes place in one day at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, with only a few weeks left in the school term. On this eventful day a new boy is enrolled in the school. His name is Osei Kokote. He is the son of a diplomat from Ghana. Apparently, he is the only black child entered in the school, and so he is a figure of great curiosity for the other children and for the teachers, some of whom seem particularly vexed by the idea of having to teach him.  

A teacher assigns Dee, the most popular girl in school and the teacher's pet, to show Osei around the campus. The two hit it off almost instantly, much to the consternation of Ian, the school bully who harbors his own interest in Dee, although he is the boyfriend of her friend Mimi (who is his very reluctant girlfriend). Ian sets out to disrupt and destroy the budding relationship between Dee and Osei at any cost. The consequences of his single-minded campaign will have far-reaching effects on the lives of all the main characters. 

In telling this story, Chevalier manages to hit all the major themes of the Shakespeare original. Racism, check; love, check; jealousy, check; betrayal, check; revenge, check; repentance, check. It's all here but reduced to the puerile level of children just beginning to discover the wide world and their own sexuality. I suppose that Chevalier's point is that all of these various human emotional reactions and needs have their roots in childhood. It's where the personality is formed and where one develops one's view of the world as either a benevolent and welcoming place or an unkind, zero-sum place where everyone is either winner or loser and you don't want to get caught on the wrong side of the line. The child is truly the father/mother to the man/woman. Seeing Othello, Desdemona, Iago, etc., as children might give us some insight into the adult characters.

In theory, it's an interesting concept and a unique way of presenting Othello, and this book has been highly praised by many, but, in practice, eleven-year-olds falling in and out of love in an afternoon on the playground and plotting to destroy their perceived enemies using an errant pencil box as a tool...I just couldn't love it.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


  1. I guess a classic reimagining is going to divide readers. Too bad you didn't like this one, Dorothy. I had the feeling when I read Judy's review that I wouldn't believe or like this one.

    1. I've liked other work by Tracy Chevalier, especially The Girl With the Pearl Earring , but this one just didn't grab me.

  2. I liked it more than you did. I agree with your insights about children and the playground. After all, we have a grown one now in power. I also agree that the story lacked a certain zing.

    1. I remember your review and that you liked it quite a lot. You are in the majority, I think. Most of the reviews that I have seen of the book have been positive.


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