Love and jeal­ousy — nov­el­ist reimag­ines Othello


New Boy Tracy Che­va­lier Knopf Canada

What’s with this play­ground ver­sion of Othello?

Don’t laugh. It’s re­ally hap­pen­ing. And Tracy Che­va­lier won’t be sur­prised if her lat­est novel, New Boy, trig­gers up­roar.

“Part of me said to my­self that it’s ar­ro­gant even to think of do­ing some­thing like this,” Che­va­lier says.

So what’s the best­selling au­thor of Girl With a Pearl Ear­ring up to here? She’s aban­doned her favoured field of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for some­thing with an edgy con­tem­po­rary set­ting.

But just how edgy does New Boy turn out to be? Well, con­sider this: Che­va­lier’s take on Shake­speare’s dark tragedy of racism, jeal­ousy and death largely takes place in a subur­ban Wash­ing­ton school­yard in 1974, with pre­teen pas­sions run­ning ram­pant as the story reaches its dev­as­tat­ing cli­max.

“I don’t see any point in re­do­ing Othello un­less you take the play and re­ally shake it up,” Che­va­lier says.

She’s a par­tic­i­pant in the on­go­ing Hog­a­rth Shake­speare Project with its man­date to com­mis­sion prom­i­nent nov­el­ists to fash­ion retellings of Wil­liam Shake­speare’s plays. Che­va­lier, 54, has en­thu­si­as­ti­cally joined such fel­low writ­ers as Canada’s Mar­garet At­wood (The Tem­pest), Anne Tyler (Tam­ing of the Shrew) and Jo Nesbo (Mac­beth) in an en­ter­prise that has sparked both ac­claim and con­tro­versy around the world.

With its un­com­pro­mis­ing por­trait of pre-ado­les­cent ro­man­tic angst, New Boy, pub­lished in Canada by Knopf, is def­i­nitely ask­ing for con­tro­versy. But af­ter com­plet­ing At the Edge of the Or­chard, her novel about Johnny Ap­ple­seed, Che­va­lier was ready for some­thing new.

“I needed a palate cleanser — some­thing dif­fer­ent from the main course,” she says. Hog­a­rth ed­i­tors had told her she could choose any Shake­spearean play that hadn’t al­ready been taken.

She briefly con­sid­ered Romeo and Juliet be­cause it was the first play she stud­ied and be­cause she had loved the Zef­firelli film ver­sion — “but I didn’t want to write about teenage pas­sion.”

But nei­ther at that time was she con­tem­plat­ing an en­try into the even more treach­er­ous ter­ri­tory of pre-ado­les­cent pas­sion when she se­lected Othello, Shake­speare’s brood­ing tragedy about the black Moor­ish gen­eral whose fierce love for Des­de­mona dis­in­te­grates into jeal­ousy and mur­der be­cause of the plot­ting of the vil­lain­ous Iago.

In fact, she was ini­tially un­sure how she would han­dle this dark story, un­til Hog­a­rth threw a party for par­tic­i­pants in the project.

Asked by an­other guest why she had picked Othello, Che­va­lier said she liked the themes of jeal­ousy and be­ing the out­sider. That prompted an­other ques­tion about race — which was enough to spark her own mem­o­ries of be­ing a white child in a largely black school when she was grow­ing up.

It was then that Che­va­lier knew ab­so­lutely where she wanted to go with Othello.

“A school is a hot­house for all sorts of things go­ing on in so­ci­ety — and it sud­denly oc­curred to me that I could set Othello in a play­ground. And then it just clicked. It felt just right.”

The U.S.-born nov­el­ist is chat­ting in a North Lon­don cof­fee bar, re­mem­ber­ing how her young char­ac­ters started tak­ing shape in her mind: the black diplo­mat’s son Osei, de­ter­mined to sur­vive his first day at a po­ten­tially hos­tile new school; Dee, the most pop­u­lar girl in school and the one who be­friends him; Ian, the fright­en­ing and ma­nip­u­la­tive kid from the dark side who can’t stand what’s hap­pen­ing be­tween this black boy and the school beauty.

Osei, of course, is Othello, Dee is Des­de­mona, and Ian is the un­speak­able Iago, a char­ac­ter the Shake­spearean scholar A.C. Bradley once de­scribed as the epit­ome of “mo­tive­less ma­lig­nity.”

“Every play­ground has an Ian,” Che­va­lier says.

“Every sit­u­a­tion they’re in — they look at it as to how they can ben­e­fit from it, or make sure that oth­ers can’t ben­e­fit, or sim­ply be dis­rup­tive.”

Some early read­ers of the novel ob­ject to the idea that pre-ado­les­cent chil­dren could fall prey to the dan­ger­ous pas­sions that en­gulf the char­ac­ters in New Boy. But Che­va­lier gen­tly sug­gests that given the right con­di­tions, the events de­scribed could eas­ily hap­pen and that an ele­men­tary school play­ground can be a jun­gle.

“I de­lib­er­ately chose the age of 11 for my story be­cause it’s not the teens yet, but it is the age when kids are start­ing to im­i­tate adults.” They’re par­o­dy­ing the racism, she says, and they’re also try­ing out ro­mance.

“Some kids de­velop much faster than oth­ers. Some are at the first stages of pu­berty, and some aren’t. With 11-year-olds, they start ‘go­ing to­gether’ at morn­ing break and they’ve split up by lunchtime.

“It hap­pened at my son’s school — it didn’t mean any­thing — they were im­i­tat­ing adults.”

But there’s also po­ten­tial here for the kind of volatile sit­u­a­tion ex­ist­ing in New Boy, es­pe­cially when racism enters the equa­tion.

“I could have done some­thing dif­fer­ent,” she says, “but I wanted to retell the Othello story pretty straight. The story and char­ac­ters were given to me. I didn’t have to make them up or ges­tate them and give birth to them. Yet at the same time I needed to feel that this would not just be a retelling of Shake­speare, but a story I needed to tell.”

Che­va­lier, who has lived in Lon­don for 33 years, ac­cepts that her writ­ing con­tin­ues to be de­fined by Girl With a Pearl Ear­ring, her stun­ning fic­tional re-cre­ation of the ori­gins of a fa­mous Ver­meer paint­ing.

“I thought at the time — who will want to read about a Dutch painter and his model? I ex­pected it to sell maybe a thou­sand copies. “And now the num­ber is up to five mil­lion.”

Her suc­cess made her ner­vous. Af­ter all, her strong­est cre­ative an­chor doesn’t come from high sales, but from the per­sonal ful­fil­ment that comes from writ­ing.

“It’s work­ing your­self into an­other world, a world that doesn’t ex­ist but has el­e­ments of re­al­ity in it, and al­lows you to ex­plore dif­fer­ent as­pects of your own life. I like do­ing that.”


“I needed to feel that this would not just be a retelling of Shake­speare,” au­thor Tracy Che­va­lier says of her Othello-in­spired novel, New Boy, “but a story I needed to tell.”

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