Friday 20 October 2017

It's Shakespeare, but not as we used to know it

Fiction: New Boy, Tracy Chevalier, Hogarth, €16.99

Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier
New Boy

Tim Martin

There have been some impressive hits in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which commissions writers to come up with novel-length riffs on the plays. Margaret Atwood's delightfully crazy Hag-Seed revolved around a production of The Tempest set in a prison, spicing its narrative with hip-hop lyrics and plays-within-plays, and Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name had a 21st-century art dealer enjoying caustic chats with the ghost of Shylock as a bunch of Cheshire footballers and socialites played out the Portia plot.

For books written to order, these were huge fun: the authors writing back to Shakespeare with admiration and having a great time, too.

This take on Othello by Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) has a similarly striking concept: it transposes the action from 17th-century Venice and Cyprus to a single day in American elementary school in the 1970s. Here Othello is Osei, the son of a Nigerian diplomat arriving at his fourth school in six years, and Desdemona is Dee, the girl who befriends him; Iago, Roderigo, Cassio, Bianca and co are kids called Ian, Rod, Casper and Blanca. The dropped handkerchief that drives Othello wild with jealousy is a strawberry-spotted pencil case; the tragic climax is set on a climbing frame.

These are neat ideas, but this hastily sketched 200-page novel isn't at all convincing. Remakes of this kind need either to shed interesting light on Shakespeare for people who know the work, or to tell engaging stories to people who'll never read the originals. Ideally they'd do both, but Chevalier's novel does neither.

Her portrait of not-quite-teenagers is oddly tin-eared, studded with stage directions standing in for narrative movement. The depiction of race relations (Osei is the only black boy in an all-white school) is stilted, while the characters are described in the kind of shorthand you'd expect to find in a writer's notebook: "Best friend of Dee, and now girlfriend of Ian: you would think these concrete relationships would tether her, but they did not... Miss Lode kept her wide blue eyes fixed on her colleague as if not wanting to miss any morsel of wisdom that might help her become a better teacher."

Chevalier's cast of 11-year-olds trot out effortful dialogue: "I used it to get him to break up with me. Otherwise I would always be under his power and I couldn't stand that." Inside their heads, things are laborious, too.

As Osei listens to his teacher, Chevalier informs us that "Mrs Duke's comment reminded him of a short story by Shirley Jackson called After You, My Dear Alphonse, where a mother reveals her prejudice to the black friend her son brings home." This sort of prose is an uphill battle for the reader, and it's not made easier by some odd interpretations of the play, particularly the character of Iago (Ian in this version). In Othello, Iago's evil scheming works because of his public reputation as "honest, honest Iago", all-round good bloke and soldier of unquestionable loyalty. In this version Ian is a notorious persecutor, given to violence and stamping on toys: he is, Chevalier tells us, "the boy they feared but didn't respect".

Such a drab response to this character puts even more stress on the borrowed plot: it means that Osei/Othello is gulled into lunacy not by his best friend and most trusted adviser, but by a school bully he met this morning.

Take that away from Othello, and there isn't much left: you have a novel that feels like a reluctant commission - or a book report on a text that hard-working, well-meaning Chevalier, T, wasn't very interested in to begin with. This one, alas, is a C minus at best.

©Telegraph

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