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.”