New Boy is the latest book in the entrancing Hogarth Shakespeare series, which asks top novelists to reimagine Shakespearean plays in a contemporary setting.
The subject matter for this reworking of Othello by the author of The Girl with a Pearl Earring looks at life in the American sixth grade at a Washington school in 1974. That makes the ages of those involved 11-12.
Things might be different today but the arrival of “O” at a school peopled by the children of the affluent causes considerable consternation, almost as if nobody there, even the teachers, has ever seen a black person before let alone found one in class.
The young Ghanaian does his best to take this on the chin, having school-hopped on a regular basis, as the sons of diplomats tend to.
The events which unfold follow the original in general terms, although an incredible amount takes place in only a day.
O has the good fortune to be paired with kind Dee, an intelligent and pretty, sweet-natured girl with a terrifying mother, who would undoubtedly disapprove of her new friend.
In no time at all, the youngsters are canoodling, much to the dismay of their teacher Mr Brabant, a closet racist if ever there was one, who also seems to have an unhealthy liking for little girls, although this is not developed.
The young protagonist turns out to be a potential star, bright, sporty and sensitive. Having fallen on his feet and found Dee, it seems that little can go wrong but neither Shakespeare nor Tracy Chevalier will allow a black protagonist in a white world to live happily ever after.
The catalyst for a startling series of events is malign Ian, a nasty piece of work who thrives on greed, bullying and schadenfreude in equal measures.
Making the most of Dee’s clumsiness in losing a strawberry encrusted pencil case (really) that is found by Ian’s girlfriend (of a couple of hours) Mimi, he plants seeds of jealousy into the mind of the New Boy with disastrous consequences.
Anyone who knows their Othello will instantly recognise the plotting, although the dénouement is impressively enigmatic.
It is unclear whether this book has been written with a target audience of teens or adults, although it is likely that youngsters will identify better with the characters and enjoy reflections of their own lives in a way that those a generation or more older may find difficult.
Every book in the series to date is competitively priced and has been a delight. While New Boy is rather simplistic and readers may wonder whether 11-year-olds would really have behaved quite like this 30 years ago, it is undoubtedly a real page turner.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher