Some ideas — the Unicorn Frappuccino, Ryan Seacrest, American government — look better in theory than in practice. Same goes for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a clever-sounding plan to ask well-known authors to write novels based on the Bard’s plays. The series, which started in 2015 with Jeanette Winterson’s revision of “The Winter’s Tale,” has grown to include Howard Jacobson on “Merchant of Venice,” Anne Tyler on “Taming of the Shrew” and Margaret Atwood on “The Tempest.”
Our age is so uniquely fixated on originality that the project feels a bit larcenous — indeed, that’s its appeal. But Elizabethan playwrights didn’t hesitate to steal well-known characters and stories. Ironically, Shakespeare wrote his greatest work by nabbing others’ plots, while these brilliant modern authors have written only middling novels by borrowing his.
Now, we have Tracy Chevalier’s “New Boy.” There’s no risk of it overshadowing Shakespeare’s “Othello” the way “Othello” has completely eclipsed Cinthio’s “A Moorish Captain.” But that’s neither here nor there. What Chevalier has done is recast the play to illuminate the peculiar trials of our era. If it’s not a classic novel, it’s at least a fascinating exercise.
“New Boy” takes place in an elementary school in a Washington suburb. At first, that setting might sound infantile for the adult machinations of Shakespeare’s play, but give it a moment, and the anachronisms of this mash-up start to feel oddly appropriate. In Chevalier’s handling, the insidious manipulations of “Othello” translate smoothly to the dynamics of a sixth-grade playground, with all its skinned-knee passions and hopscotch rules. What’s more, that commentary works in both directions: The gentlemen of Venice often behave like foolish children, and sixth-graders, as Chevalier makes plain, can be unnervingly mature.
The passage of time is a curious challenge in “Othello,” which seems to hurtle from marriage to murder in a matter of days. But Chevalier makes that procession even more compressed by setting the five parts of “New Boy” in a single school day. It’s one of many adjustments that works surprisingly well. The playground, you may remember, is a field of tempestuous emotions and lightning romances. If anything, the story feels a little more plausible hanging from the monkey bars than it does sailing for Cyprus.
The scene opens on a spring day. Dee, the most popular girl in sixth grade, notices the new boy first. The only black student in school, he’s standing apart from the other kids and dressed too formally. Dee is fascinated by his outsider status and immediately feels determined to protect him. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, she introduces herself and learns that he’s from Ghana and that his name is Osei. “It is easier to call me O,” he tells her, and they immediately share a laugh about the coincidence of their names: O and D. “O had beautiful straight teeth,” Dee thinks, “a flash of light in his dark face that sparked something inside her.”
O sparks something else inside others, which allows the novel to explore a spectrum of racial attitudes — from sympathy to fascination to outright revulsion. The 1970s setting allows Chevalier to follow reactions across the playground and into the teacher’s lounge at a time of revolutionary social change. The all-white staff is divided between those determined to be welcoming, despite their anxiety, and those who feel no need to hide their suspicions of this dark interloper. Along the way, we hear all the usual excuses. Some, fortunately, sound antiquated, like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy.” But other comments are still disappointingly fashionable, such as “The color of his skin has nothing to do with this,” which remains a cherished canard for racists today.
But O’s troubles do not come from the teachers and administrators, whose attitudes he can already recognize and negotiate effectively. This is, after all, his fourth school in six years, and his older sister has been tutoring him in the philosophy of Malcolm X. He knows all about white people and their prejudices, their ignorance of Africa, their creepy desire to touch his hair, their pathetic appropriations of black culture.
What he’s not prepared for is a fellow student such as Ian, harboring the green-eyed monster in his adolescent soul. We first meet him while he’s making some fourth-graders nauseous on the merry-go-round. He spots O and immediately surmises Dee’s attraction. “Ian would always notice anyone who stepped into his domain,” Chevalier writes. “Ian was the shrewdest. The most calculating. The quickest to respond to a new situation and turn it to his advantage.” He cannot abide O’s quiet confidence and the attention he attracts from their classmates.
As a mean-spirited sixth-grader, Ian is more sympathetic than Iago, whose dark motives have been the subject of debate for centuries. Even as we watch Ian inject his poison into O and the rest of the class, we learn that he’s beaten at home and that he’s the youngest of a series of tough brothers. Toxic as he is, it’s apparent that he’s developed a manipulative personality in response to his circumstances.
How Chevalier renders Iago’s scheme into the terms of a modern-day playground provides some wicked delight. She’s immensely inventive about it all, substituting, for instance, a pencil case decorated with strawberries for the handkerchief that Othello gives Desdemona. And the other characters of Shakespeare’s cast line up neatly with archetypal figures playing kickball during recess. Even the play’s fierce sexual energy finds an appropriate correspondence among these adolescents storming through puberty.
Of course, “Othello” works better, but that’s inevitable. Shakespeare’s highly stylized language accommodates equally artificial actions on the stage, while that harmony is thrown out of whack in Chevalier’s novel. Her realistic prose and naturalistic characters eventually clash with the melodrama that overtakes the plot. But by that time, the story of O has reached such a disturbing pitch that you can’t do anything but stand stock still in the sand and watch this poor boy’s life crash.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com .
On May 25 at 7:30 pm, Tracy Chevalier will be at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. folger.edu.
By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth. 204 pp. $25