Othello. Believed to have first been performed in 1604 (and originally attributed to Shaxbeard) and inspired by Cinthio’s tale In Capitano Moro – which it is believed Shakespeare may have read in Italian, given certain similarities in the eventual play – Othello is a play that we can all agree has stood the test of time. Some 413 years later, it’s the latest play to be given the Hogarth novelisation treatment at the hands of Tracy Chevalier.
Transplanted from Venice to Washington in the 1970s, the action of New Boy largely centres on a school play ground and the principals are largely children on the cusp of going to high school. Othello becomes Osei (or O); Desdemona becomes Dee; Iago is Ian; Cassio is Casper; Rodriguo is Ray. You can play a neat game transposing the characters across. With it being a novel, we’re privy to far more of the inner workings of each character than we would be if we were reading the play itself. Osei is a diplomat’s son, used to a peripatetic lifestyle, largely immured to the racism of his fellow schoolchildren, their parents, teachers. Dee is one of the most popular girls in school, reasonable, waiting on a big change predicted by her slightly psychic friend Mimi (she thought it might have been the move to high school; changes this when confronted by Osei to wondering… could it be him?). Ian is a bully, feared by other children and yet, curiously, one of the play ground’s leaders, allowed to choose teams alongside the alpha male (and all round nice guy) Casper. From the get-go, Ian can’t abide Osei. There are racist undertones but his motivation could just as easily be that he doesn’t like the precarious social order threatened by change. As Osei and Dee fall as hard for each other as the fact of their being children and the action of the novel covering a single day can allow, Ian malevolently surges into action. Othello’s handkerchief becomes a strawberry embossed pencil case and the switching ownership thereof is what catapults fledgling romance into the ugly realms of violence.
It may be, as you read the previous paragraph, you thought: this all sounds a little bit YA. It is a little YA, although it is being marketed as a novel for adults. There are things structurally wrong with the book, not least the fact that the action takes place over a single day. It’s hard to read about the boy Osei is, and build your own understanding of him, and then see how quickly (and ridiculously) he is manipulated. Of course that is the point. The book has to follow the structure of Othello, we know. But it doesn’t have to take place over a day. It could just as easily have been a term. Extending the action in that way would have helped. Similarly, the tragedy when it comes is downright absurd. You can’t help but ask yourself would anyone do this? as you read. And, of course, when you are pushed out of a book by silly things happening, it’s like noticing a loose thread on a sweater; you can’t help but tug on it and as you tug everything starts to unravel. Ian, particularly, is problematic. He lacks charisma, is feared but also derided, and yet, as we said, also occupies a curious position of leadership – the paradox he is undermines the reality of the book.
All told, it’s not entirely a success. We defy you to read this without rolling your eyes. What’s more, it’s publication places it on bookshelves alongside the paperback issue of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (a successful reworking of Hamlet) and Colm Toibin’s The House of Names (a successful reworking of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia); New Boy suffers inordinately in comparison to both of those books.
Any Cop?: This does feel like Chevalier stepping out of her comfort zone, and she should be commended for that – but not much else. New Boy is a misfire.