The Short Version: It’s a month before the end of the school year and Osei, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, is starting his first day at a new school in a new city: Washington DC. He meets fellow sixth grader Dee and the two immediately fall for one another. But troublemaker Ian (not to mention the barely-covertly racist teachers) are having none of it… and by the end of the school day, much will have changed for everyone.
The Review: When Hogarth announced its Hogarth Shakespeare series a few years ago, there was a lot to be excited about. A-list authors turning their talents toward covering Shakespeare – Margaret Atwood on The Tempest! Edward St. Aubyn on King Lear! – what could go wrong? And yet, something did stick out about the announcement: the authors were all white.
And that fact worried at the edges of my mind as I approached, with some honest trepidation, Tracy Chevalier’s take on Othello. Why couldn’t a black author have been given this story – been given an opportunity to redeem the Moor, or to break the play and turn it into something new, or even to tell the story exactly as it was? I was worried and that worry hasn’t abated even after I finished the novel – because while Chevalier’s book might actually be one of the strongest entries in the series, I’m not sure she ever quite escapes the inherent problem of being a white woman writing about race in 1970s DC.
But she does try. The first thing she does is take a tack that allows her to spend as much time (if not more, in fact) with her Desdemona and Emilia substitutes Dee and Mimi. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced a female-centric look at Othello but it holds up: Dee and Mimi feel far more human than Shakespeare’s women, even though they’re only sixth graders. It’s also important that Dee, Mimi, Ian, and Osei all have equal footing in this novel. That matters, especially as the end draws near: we understand all four of them and what’s brought them to the confluence of tragedy. And Chevalier does it beautifully, capturing the quicksilver of adolescence without ever dumbing her writing down: these children might not know algebra yet but they are just as complex and complicated as any given grownup.
This book feels like the first one of the five Hogarth Shakespeares so far to really effectively transpose the entirety of Shakespeare’s plot into the novel. (It is particularly interesting that New Boy is the first of the books not to carry a synopsis of the original play in the back of the book.) Jacobson and Winterson cracked theirs, redefined the plays to suit their needs, while Atwood and Tyler followed theirs closely enough but were willing to depart with things or move them around as needed – but Chevalier manages to capture every single plot point from Othello with such skill and sneakiness that you can’t help but applaud at the end of the novel. Each time two characters spin off and interact, I would realize at the conclusion of their scene that, oh! this is the moment where Iago gets Cassio drunk, this is the hair-brushing scene between Desdemona and Emilia, this is the equivalent of Othello’s monologue about his history.Not only that, but she convinces you that this could all happen in the space of a single school day (barely eight hours, perhaps even less). Chevalier knows the play inside and out and it shows: she’s done the kind of cover where she uses all of the original parts but completely makes it her own beast.
Despite how excellent the reading experience (and it is, truly, excellent – I read it in two sittings), I still have misgivings. The adults are either misguidedly racist or overtly racist and watching Osei have to encounter that, watching the other characters overhear it… yes, I suppose it says something about our current moment. I suppose it is worth seeing that forty years later, people are still awful. But I can’t help thinking about the missed opportunity here – and across the series – to hear from diverse voices.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The book feels like a high-wire sprint much of the time: it picks up quickly and then tears forward, stepping lightly and only wobbling a few times. The wobbles are concerning but they don’t topple the book and by the end, I felt like I do at the end of the best Mobile Unit performances at The Public: invigorated in my love of Shakespeare, astonished at how these old stories can still speak to us across time, country, culture. (Those performances are a good match for the sense of this book too, as they run ~90 minutes each and are delivered with gusto.) I wish that the folks at Hogarth had picked any non-white author to write any of the stories – particularly this one. Still, I can’t find fault with the way Chevalier executes this terrific surpassing of expectations.