New Boy is the third Hogarth Shakespeare novel I read, and this retelling of Othello transported me to a school in Washington DC in the 1970s.
The title of Chevalier’s novel refers to Osei Kokote, the eleven-year-old son of a Diplomat from Ghana. In the span of six years the Kokote family has moved around a lot, so this the fourth school Osei finds himself in. In this new school located in a white suburb where he is the only black kid, Osei knows he’ll have to learn to face the hostilities of his schoolmates and teachers on top of finding new friends. But when Dee, the most popular girl in the school befriends Osei, for a moment it looks like his worries were misplaced. Yes, there are a few ignorant kids and adults who make their contempt towards Osei obvious, but with sweet and sensitive Dee by his side, Osei feels happy.
However, not all are thrilled to see this budding friendship between Osei and Dee. Ian the school bully is especially displeased to see the school’s golden girl hanging out with the black boy. So Ian comes up with an elaborate plan to break them up and what follows is quite chilling.
With her story, Chevalier highlights issues about racism and bullying that are even valid today. When I first read the New Boy, I had no idea of the original story-line. So I was disappointed to see Osei easily falling into Ian’s trap. Because Osei had lived in Rome, London, and New York and had been in similar situations before, I expected Osei to see through Ian’s plan or suspect his intentions at the very least. Instead, manipulated by Ian, Osei went from being a likable kid who is a bit mature for his age to a completely unlikable kid no better than Ian! But when I read Othello I realized why Chevalier had to change Osei’s persona. Othello is supposed to be a tragedy after all, and what is more tragic than a decent person who has turned evil.
There were times I wished Chevalier hadn’t directly mapped Shakespeare’s play into a modern day setting (it is also one of the complaints I had about Dunbar; Edward St. Aubyn’s retelling of King Lear) – that weakened her story. New Boy lacked the imagination Atwood showed with her retelling of The Tempest, and if I were to rate this novel without considering its attachment to the original play, I don’t think I would have given it more than 2 stars. 😐