Tracy Chevalier (Hogarth Shakespeare, £12.99)
In New Boy, Tracy Chevalier transports Othello to an elementary school in 1970s suburban Washington DC. It is the most recent addition to the ‘Hogarth Shakespeare’ series, for which some of today’s literary luminaries have reimagined the Bard’s plays as novels.
The new boy of the title is Osei, or ‘O’, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, who arrives at an otherwise all-white school. He immediately falls for teacher’s pet Dee and gives her his sister’s pencil case —Miss Chevalier’s equivalent of Shakespeare’s incriminating handkerchief. Ian, the school bully, spins lies centring on the pencil case and popular Caspar, which turn O against Dee until he feels like ‘the black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day’. The school playground—with children jumping rope, playing kickball, climbing the jungle gym —becomes the scene of tragedy.
Jumping rope, kickball, jungle gym: 1970s America is woven into the fabric of the book, felt in details such as Roberta Flack on the radio, a Dixie Riddle cup dispenser, a teacher who fought in Vietnam and O’s sister signing off her phonecalls with ‘Black is Beautiful’. Particular emphasis is placed on this being a crucial time and place for the Civil Rights movement, thereby giving an old story a powerful new resonance.
The cast of 11-year-old characters holds plenty of appeal for school readers, which is when most of us first encounter the original play, and reintroduces the more seasoned of us to the complexity of playground politics: ‘His father might be the diplomat in the family, but Osei too was a diplomat of sorts, displaying his skills at each new school.’
Above all, New Boy is a chilling reminder that the cruelty of pre-teen life can feel as desperate as Shakespearean tragedy. Emily Rhodes