Hogarth Shakespeares are like buses, aren’t they? I haven’t picked one up for years and now there are two at once. Following on from the quirky, inoffensive Vinegar Girl (retelling The Taming of the Shrew) is New Boy, Tracey Chevalier’s reworking of Othello. I’m a great admirer of Chevalier and her concept is clever – to set the story among the ever-changing alliances and rivalries of an elementary-school playground. Certainly, this setting gives plausibility to the lightening-swift shifts of Shakespeare’s characters, but I just couldn’t shake off a certain… uneasiness. Such a story, which hinges so heavily on sexual jealousy and very adult violence, doesn’t sit comfortably in such a place. On one hand, we risk the complexities of the story being lost; on the other, we see children behaving in a way which feels too mature for eleven-year-olds. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting – and disturbing – experiment.
Osei Kokote is an diplomat’s son, newly posted to 1970s Washington with his father. With only a few weeks of school left before the summer holidays, and graduation to junior high, he’s been enrolled in the local elementary school as a way to break him in softly, and give him the chance to meet new friends. This, as Osei knows only too well, is ridiculous. His parents don’t understand what it feels like to be the only black boy in a white sea of faces, among snide children and biogted teachers. He does. He’s an expert at starting new schools: at always being the new boy, the oddity, standing out in Rome, London, New York… And he’s used to the fact that, on your first day, no one cares for the new boy.
No one except Dee Benedetti, that is. Something of a teacher’s pet, she’s asked to take Osei under her wing. But, as they line up for class, there’s a spark of something unexpected between this blonde, all-American girl and the quiet, courteous son of the Ghanaian diplomat. Fascinated by his charm, his composure and his exoticism, Dee wants to help Osei – or ‘O’, as he suggests she calls him, as no one can pronounce his full name. She even swaps pencil cases with him, so that he doesn’t have to use his sister’s mortifying strawberry-patterned case (the only one his mum could find). By morning recess, the entire year is aware of their chemistry. By lunchtime, they’re going out. And, by afternoon recess, their blossoming tendresse is already heading towards the rocks of suspicion, jealousy and, perhaps, worse… And this comes courtesy of Ian, precociously cunning in the art of causing pain, who sees his hard-won place as the master of the playground slipping from his grip.
Othello should be a hard play to transpose to other circumstances. In an ideal world, it would be a historical piece, bound to the worldview of 17th-century Venice and Cyprus. Its nasty racial slurs should shock far more than they do. The fact that it can actually be retold so easily in the modern world is gloomy proof that we haven’t come anywhere near as far in terms of diversity and tolerance as we’d like to think. Yet, as I said above, I just can’t quite buy into the elementary-school setting. Chevalier does a good job of transposing characters: Osei’s and Dee’s class tutor is Mr Brabant; the headmistress is Mrs Duke; Ian’s sidekick is the irritating Rod; and his unwilling girlfriend is the delicate Mimi (whose migraines seem to indicate some kind of clairvoyant power). And yes, of course one takes things seriously at school – but might it not have worked better with slightly older children? Yes, elementary or primary-age children play at going out with one another – I remember getting married several times in the playground – but I felt that the final act didn’t quite convince.
Moreover, although we get a good idea of Osei’s character, we never really get to know Ian, and what we do know is purely unpleasant. Maybe it’s just because I have a sympathy for Machiavellians, but I’ve always thought one of the wonderful things about Othello is that Shakespeare encourages you to enjoy Iago’s company. He’s an absolute swine, and Othello himself is the hero no doubt, but there’s something about Iago’s beguiling soliloquies that draws you in, irresistibly, to dance awhile on the dark side with him. That connection is never here in this book. Ian is a pure bully, a stealer of smaller children’s pocket money, an embryonic mob boss. We never feel ourselves drawn in by that seductive crook of the finger – come here, let me confide in you – as we do in the play. I do, however, have to commend Chevalier in sticking more ruthlessly than Shakespeare to Aristotle’s maxim that a tragedy should take place during the course of only one day. Perhaps this is only really credible in the quicksilver world of playground relationships. But it also deprives us of the depth, power and passion of the story when acted out by more mature and complicated individuals.
However, a new book by Chevalier is always cause for celebration, so certainly seek it out. It is a powerful exploration of identity and belonging and racial stereotyping, in the not-so-distant past. But don’t necessarily expect it to change the way you understand the play.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review