Friday 15 December 2017

Bard times in an American high school

Fiction: New Boy, Tracy Chevalier, Hogarth, hardback, 187 pages, €15.18

Classic: Tracy Chevalier doffs a cap to the Bard
Classic: Tracy Chevalier doffs a cap to the Bard
New Boy

Tanya Sweeney

The oldies are indeed the goodies. For years, writers from Curtis Sittenfeld to David Mitchell have taken classics from the canon and upcycled them in a contemporaneous setting (it must be said, with varying degrees of success). And now, ­historical-fiction maven Tracy Chevalier has taken Shakespeare's Othello and used it as the backbone for her ninth novel. The book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern retellings of the Bard's classics. Already, the series has seen Jo Nesbo take on Macbeth, Gillian Flynn tackle Hamlet, Margaret Atwood do-over The Tempest and Anne Tyler adapt The Taming of the Shrew.

It's safe to say that Shakespeare knew a thing or two about drama, suspense and the spinning of a good yarn. But the question looms large - has Chevalier come good with her raw material?

Initially, the cap is doffed subtly to Shakespeare's tragedy: in place of Othello, we have Osei Kokote, or 'O', a diplomat's son from Ghana. He is brought to school - his fourth in six years - by his fretful mother, but O knows only too well how to be the new boy at school. This time, however, he is the only black child in his entire Washington DC school, about the start the sixth grade (13 to 14-year-olds). Worse still, he not only has to endure casual racism from his classmates, but from the teachers, too. Yet he is saved, on the very first day, when the two popular kids in his class proffer a welcoming hand.

Dee (presumably a nod to Desdemona) is a clever girl taken by O's still, quiet confidence. Heat and electricity pulse through her when they meet, and they hit it off.

Casper, meanwhile, is effortlessly cool and universally liked. This happens to be much to the chagrin of Ian (you can see what she did there), a boy only spectacular in his mediocrity and lack of status, but a savage, interfering brat to boot. Proving he is charming, but might not know too much about the intricacies of the high-school pecking order, Osei beats Ian at kickball. Sensing a need to jockey for position, Ian becomes jealously hell-bent on revenge as soon as he registers the pair's closeness. And, much like his namesake, he stands back just enough to let others wreak the havoc and disaster he has created.

Transferring the tale of an African general stationed in Venice to an American playground in the 1970s may have a whiff of the risky gamble about it. The truth is, high school, with its crushes, insecurities and politics, work as the perfect backdrop to Shakespeare's original plot. There are the usual high-school tropes - insecure girls, flaxen-haired jocks - yet they only serve to propel the plot towards its tragic denouement. In all, New Boy, with its angsty teenagers, racial frictions and a magnificently fleshed out antagonist, is a tense and tight read. At 187 pages, it can be read in a single afternoon, too, and it really is a heady rollercoaster of emotions, right to the breathless and shocking last line.

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