Part of the Hogarth Press Shakespeare Retellings series, Chevalier’s New Boy is a re-telling of Othello, featuring a class of grade 6 children at a school in Washington in the 1970s. Othello’s counter-part in Chevalier’s short tale is 11 year old Osei Kokote, son of a diplomat, born in Accra, Ghana, and attending his fourth school in 6 years owing to his father’s ever changing postings.
His Desdemona is 11 year old ‘Dee’ Benedetti, while his Iago is 11 year old Ian, the school bully who rules over almost everyone with an iron will, if not an iron fist (he prefers psychological and emotional threats to physical ones). Rod is Ian’s hanger-on, not a right hand man as Ian despises him, while Mimi is Dee’s best friend and suffers from undiagnosed migraines that result in her suffering from déjà-vu and occasional clairvoyance.
The tale is set over the course of Osei’s first day at his new school – a month before the school year finishes. His arrival draws the attention of everyone since he’s the only black child at the school, and while Dee is immediately fascinated by Osei and instantly befriends him, almost everyone else is appalled by his presence – most of the teachers, but especially his class teacher Mr Brabant, are as hostile as the children, and do as little to hide their hostility. The principal insists on him standing up and reciting something about himself and his native Ghana – a not-unusual approach to him that Osei’s taught himself to deal with, if not accept – in front of the entire class.
It’s Ian and Rod who most resent Osei’s appearance, however – Ian because Osei threatens to upset the balance of power that Ian’s established during his career at the school, and Rod because he wants to ‘go with’ Dee, and she has never given the slightest sign of being interested in him.
I’ll admit that Othello’s not one of my favourite of the Bard’s plays, but I wanted to read this to see how Chevalier translated it into the modern-ish world, particularly since Othello is a tragedy that sees him murdering Desdemona. Knowing of the existence of the child killers of toddler Jamie Bulger, I didn’t rule out the possibility of murder being done, but Chevalier’s ending is rather more ambiguous than that. It’s not explicitly stated, because the scene’s related by an injured Mimi who is almost certainly concussed (and paralysed) by Ian dragging her off the jungle gym in the closing chapter of the story, and she blacks out immediately afterwards, but it appears that Osei commits suicide by allowing himself to fall off the very top of the jungle gym. It’s not made clear whether Mimi simply blacks out, then wakes up paralysed, of if she’ll die. Similarly, Osei had pushed over Dee earlier in the day, causing her to also bang her head* and there’s no indication of what lasting effects this could have on Dee, though she’s certainly recovered enough to run home from school before the final scene plays out in the playground after school.
* I do feel Chevalier’s editor ought to have picked up on this repetition of injuries to the two girls. I found it discordant. My other complaint about a lack of editorial interference is in that I found it highly unrealistic that the son of a diplomat, even in the 1970s, would be going to a regular day school. It surely would make more sense for him to be going to boarding school – of which, I gather, Ghana isn’t in short supply!
For all that, however, I found this short tale to be darkly compelling – as darkly compelling as Othello itself – and I whizzed through it one day despite other time commitments.
I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.