Sunday, 15 July 2018

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier

An arena in which the most base human emotions can be played out

Tracy Chevalier's latest novel New Boy is an ambitious retelling of Shakespeare's Othello with the narrative transported to a 1970's school playground. The source material Othello: The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice (1603) is one of the Bard's most frequently adapted plays; from the Orson Welles film-noir, to Rossini's opera all the way, perhaps, to Disney's Aladdin. So what can Chevalier bring to the table in this particular adaptation? 

Some of the themes in the original text (sexual tension and political posturing for example) are inevitably absent from this scholastic retelling. Instead Chevalier focuses on the universal themes of race and jealously both of which have specific potency today. Othello in New Boy is cast as 10 year old Ghanaian school boy Osei, or 'O', who moves to an all white school in 1970s Washington after his diplomat father is posted to the USA. Chevalier's Desdemona is Dee and Iago is recast as Ian.  

Although the names are similar characters in New Boy take on their own life as the story deals with being the outsider in society and about the way jealousy motivates the most extreme behaviours. In this way the playground setting is ideal as an arena in which the most base human emotions can be played out in a believable way.

In clever recognition of the genesis play, the narrative in the book is compressed into a single school day with 'acts' named 'morning recess' and 'after-school'. Less successfully, Desdemona'a pivotal handkerchief from the play is translated into Dee's strawberry covered pencil case in New Boy.

Whilst New Boy lacks some of the creativity of Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest in Hag-seed it is, nevertheless, a compelling read especially for the young adult audience. 

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier published by Vintage, 192 pages

Saturday, 7 July 2018

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

A story about survival and protecting the young

Megan Hunter's debut novel The End We Start From is a curious read somewhere between a novella and a prose poem. Though the themes are huge the narrative itself is brief in extremis - Hunter distills the text down to the bare minimum of words; even abstracting the characters names to single letters, but has she cut the story to thin?

The End We Start From follows one mother's first experience with childbirth against the backdrop of an apocalyptic flood which leads to mass evacuation from London to the North. This is a story of survival and of protecting the young which resonates with the refugee crisis that we see playing out in the news most days. The premise is interesting, the characters are well defined and some of the imagery conjured beautiful. 

But Hunter's writing style is almost like reading notes or a draft of a 'real' novel. The text appears in short staccato paragraphs that could be argued is prose poetry. The use of random creationist quotes scattered throughout the text also needs more development.

The ultimate compromise in Megan Hunter's extreme brevity is that we miss out on understanding the world that she has created. Some back story expansion would have made this a far more engaging novel that could easily have been three times as long. The End We Start From is certainly extraordinary but the idea deserves more time to grow.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter published by Picador, 144 pages