RAD Book Club review: New Boy (Othello retold)

14 Dec 2018

RAD Book Club’s third read this series was the novel New Boy (Othello retold) by Washington DC-born writer, Tracy Chevalier.

The novel adapts Shakespeare’s Othello and is set in a school playground in Washington DC in the 1970s. Chevalier reimagines the original tragedy through the lives of 11-year-old six-graders and puts the accent on betrayal, race, identity and sexual jealousy. Seven of us contributed to a discussion which revolved around adaptation, plausibility and playground politics.

As part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Series of adaptations by contemporary authors, the book follows the events occurred in one day in the life of O (Osei/Othello), the new boy. Son of a Ghanaian diplomat based in Washington DC, O is the only black student in the entire school. O not only has to face a new school and schoolmates but also needs to adapt to the complex politics and power relations present in the playground. Here, O experiences the same rejection for being foreign and alien that he has felt in playgrounds elsewhere. Dee (Desdemona) shows an interest in him, which makes the experience in this school completely different. O’s presence and Dee’s attraction towards him threatens Ian (Iago)‘s authority over the playground.

Most of us noted the clear correspondence between the characters in Shakespeare’s play and in Chevalier’s novel. We thought this chosen context could offer an interesting change of perspective to issues around jealousy or power relations. We also found it accessible and easy to read. We valued the effort in setting the action in one day only as this emphasised how even a trivial event could become magnified in a playground setting. This simplicity is what appealed the most to some of us. We recognized the attempt made by the author in trying to portray a whole array of psychological changes in the characters. The intensity of a shockingly sad story made us feel even uncomfortable and uneasy at times and quite often sympathise with O.

However, the majority found that the author’s attempt at transplanting Othello to an American all-white playground in the 1970s didn’t quite work for us. We thought the characters, although intense, lacked realism and depth, the very intensity of their feelings questionable in such a short time-frame. We also found it difficult to believe that 11-year-olds would relate and speak to each other in that manner or show such self-awareness in their own thoughts. Although the themes of betrayal and jealously could work well in the context of playground bullying, such a literal adherence to the original text didn’t translate well in the context of the playground. Crucially, many of us believed that the novel remained too close to the original play. For us, this made the author’s attempt at adapting the play quite futile: scenes seem transposed from Shakespeare’s play and objects (e.g. pencil case/handkerchief) appeared to carry the same symbolic functions; for some, even characters’ names seemed too obvious. After all, it is Othello retold and most of us were disappointed at what seemed a book best suited for a young audience whose dramatic possibilities remained unexplored for some of us.

Other discussions involved the periphery characters that are mentioned but do not appear in the action. We questioned the importance and relevance of Ian’s older brothers, Dee’s mum, O’s sister and the teachers in the novel; would realising those characters more fully have enriched the novel with more context? We also speculated whether we would have enjoyed the novel more had we not known it to be an adaptation of Othello. As a group we scored this book scored 6/10.