The quick and dirty:
New Boy is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello. This time the tragedy is transposed to a Washington school in the 70’s where a young black boy from Ghana is starting a new school for the fourth time in six years. He is used to being the new boy, and used to the bullying and racism that comes along with being a black boy in a mostly or all-white school. But on this day, a clever, calculating and jealous bully takes exception to the friendship and blossoming romance between the new black boy and the school golden girl, and the day spirals into something that will forever change all those involved.
I very rarely read books where racism is a central theme to the story. Not because the stories aren’t good or interesting – they are. I don’t read them because of the rage I feel both while I’m reading the book and for a long time afterwards!! In fact, that’s how I know when these sorts of books are good. The rage just sits with me afterwards and I dwell on it. I alternate between feeling helpless in the face of racism, and wanting to beat the hell out of the racist characters. And really, having that amount of anger towards a fictional character is not good for my health or for the people who have to put up with my moods afterwards – so I avoid those books (and movies, and TV programmes). That’s why I haven’t read books like The Help and Hidden Figures even though people have raved about them.
So I was a bit concerned about reading New Boy, but I really wanted to read it as Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I read Othello for the first time with my older brother who was reading it for his english class. Reading the play always brings back happy memories from my youth of my brother explaining the story to me.
Reading New Boy was every bit as rage-inducing as I thought it was going to be.
New Boy is based in the 70s and is told from the perspective of four pre-teens. Osei, Dee, Ian, and Mimi.
The story unfolds over the course of a single day. This is Osei’s first day at a new, all-white, school in Washington. Osei is used to being the new boy. He is the son of a diplomat from Ghana and has attended four schools in six years. He has resigned himself to the inevitable racism and bullying that he will experience both from the students and the teachers – but he is pleasantly surprised when Dee, the most popular girl at school takes a liking to him.
But this is a retelling of Othello – so you know that this is not going to end well. I’m not going to spoil the twists and turns in this one but let’s just say it all goes to custard astonishingly quickly.
The book is a relatively quick read. I read it over two days without really trying too hard (and since we were camping, without being able to read at night time!). Even though you kinda know where the story is going, there are enough little twists in the story to pull you into it and keep you interested. There were some gasp out loud moments – especially towards the end; and apparently I actually growled in my throat a couple of times like a pissed off cat.
At the end of the book I felt raw. Overt racism is a little hard to bear. Add to that the blatant sexism and I was almost beside myself by the time I finished the book. Osei’s transformation from a polite and kind boy to a jealous and angry young man was really hard to witness. I wanted to hug him and slap him all at the same time!
The same could not be said of the adults. I would happily slap the shit out of any one of those teachers.
You might think, based on the emotions I felt while I was reading the book that I hated it. Actually, I thought it was really good!
The story packed a lot of emotion into a very small space – quite literally as the book is based mostly in the school playground and a bit in the classroom. Schools are emotional at the best of times, and the story is made even more tragic because the main players are children. The author nailed the microcosm of life in a schoolyard where emotions are heightened, relationships can be built and destroyed in a single day, and social hierarchies matter.
Be warned – this book has a couple of shining beautiful moments, and then it proceeds to rip your heart apart piece by piece.
I highly recommend this book. Don’t worry about it if you have never read Othello or don’t like Shakespeare.