Review: New Boy

I love a good retelling. Love love love, and, I am especially fond of a good Shakespeare retelling. Have been, in fact since I first watched 10 Things I Hate About You about 20 years ago and wow I hate working that stuff out because it makes me feel old.

Anyhow. Hogarth have a Shakespeare series wherein famous writer type peeps pick one of his plays and put a new spin on it, so you’ve got Margaret Atwood doing The Tempest and Anne Tyler doing The Taming of the Shrew and, the one I am going to chat about now which is Tracy Chevalier (The Girl With the Pearl Earring) doing Othello.


If you’re unfamiliar, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I shall give you a VERY QUICK rundown of what it’s about. In a nutshell it is thus: there’s this dude, Iago, who’s annoyed because his commanding officer – Othello – has passed him over for promotion and given the job to a soldier with no experience – Cassio - and this other dude, Roderigo who’s found out Othello has secretly married the woman he’s in love with (Desdemona). They’re both a bit bitter. Iago in particular is harbouring a boat load of resentment as he also thinks Othello has been having an affair with his wife, mostly though he just really wanted that promotion and he’s reals angry at Othello and Cassio for taking it away from him. He makes sure Desdemona’s Dad finds out about the secret marriage through Roderigo, and then tries to bring Cassio down whilst he pretends to be loyal to Othello. He’s not loyal, at all. He spends pretty much the whole play trying to make Cassio look bad and lying to Othello, even telling him that Cassio’s been sleeping with Desdemona which is obvs a lie but hey this is a Shakespeare tragedy and people are stupid. Seriously, so many stupid characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Eventually, after all the shenanigans, and thanks to Iago’s plotting, Othello demotes Cassio, promotes Iago and kills Desdemona.
Holy overreaction, batman.

Also super regrettable because in the end Othello obviously finds out none of it was true, hunts down Iago for a fight (but doesn’t kill him) and eventually kills himself for optimum dramatic effect.

Oh Will, how we love you. Although actually I think this play’s a bit nuts because who kills their wife over a hanky? But then, aren’t all of Shakespeare’s plays a bit nuts….
So that’s that – basically.

Tracy’s book is called New Boy and it’s a retelling of Othello set in a school, with a cast of 11 year olds, and mostly, I liked it. I wondered how it would work because Othello is intense and I wasn’t sure how that would transpose to a schoolyard setting but actually if you think about it, it’s kind of genius, particularly the whole Iago/Cassius/Othello dynamic because let’s be honest, in the original play it’s pretty much just Iago spreading rumours to try and make Othello fall out with Cassis and if that’s not schoolyard politics then I don’t know what is.

Anyhow. I was intrigued.

In New Boy, Othello becomes ‘O’ the son of a Ghanian diplomat and the new boy of the title; Desdemona is ‘Dee’, schoolyard princess and Iago is ‘Ian’ the schoolyard bully.
The action takes place over one school day which is actually really clever because things are SO INTENSE when you’re 11, a day feels like a lifetime and you can fall in and out of love by lunchtime, and then in a neat twist, Chevalier approaches the story not from the traditional standpoints of passion and revenge and DEATH, but from what it feels like to be on the outside – there’s a theme running through this book of being an outsider, each viewpoint is that of being on the outside looking in and wanting to find a place and it’s really cool because you have sympathies towards the characters that you don’t have in quite the same way in the play.

The writing is stylised and flowing even though she’s kept her story simple and I LOVED that, that the story doesn’t try hard, it’s simple, but the writing is just lush. I mean if I’m going to be brutally honest then ok, it didn’t necessarily ring true to it being a group of children: I’ve never met an 11 year old anywhere near that articulate but it was so lyrical and easy to read that I kind of didn’t care, it worked anyway, and the ending is TENSE. SO TENSE. Does it end like the original? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’m not telling you, but I’ll tell you this: I WAS SO TENSE.

This was a quick read for me which is always a good thing when my to read pile is the height of Everest and I liked it a whole lot.  Hurrah for retellings.