Updating Othello

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello (we didn’t cover it in school, never really enjoyed reading plays and I know it’s Shakespeare but here we are) but I will always love Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring SO given the chance to read New Boy

New Boy is part of a project from Hogarth that updates Shakespeare’s plays, giving them modern contexts from acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.

(Honestly, I had no idea this was a thing and just looked at the site and want to immediately read at least 4 of the others)

new boy

In this iteration of Othello, Osei Kokote, or “O” as he lets people call him, is the new boy at a D.C. school in the 1970s. Osei is the son of a diplomat and has gone to four school in six years – he is an expert at being the new boy. He’s also the only Black child. Golden child Dee is given the job of showing Osei around. She’s pretty, popular and White. Osei and Dee strike up a friendship that blooms into a romance within minutes – this is the sixth grade after all.

Ian is used to getting his way and has been ruling the playground for the entire year. He gets the best spot on the playground, picks teams for kickball, demands lunch money or goods and generally bullies those he sees as less-than. When he sees Osei getting along so easily with Dee, he decides that he’s going to make life extremely difficult for the new boy.

I got the rundown of Othello from my mom, one of those instances where your parents surprise you by how much they know (love you, Mom!). And from what I understand, this book is pretty true to the major themes of its source material. Ian manages to trick Osei into thinking that Dee is two-timing him, that she’s bringing strawberries in for another boy, the most popular boy on the playground, a natural partner for the golden girl. Osei thinks that Dee is just like everyone else, that she was interested in the novelty of his brown skin but doesn’t actually see him.

In the end, the supporting players take the brunt of Ian’s malice in the most tragic of ways.

I thought it was brilliant of Chevalier to set the tragedy of Othello on a playground. I felt intense nostalgia for the politics and hierarchies of the playground, how you feel like such a big deal when you’re the oldest kids there. And how the littlest things, someone stealing a pencil case, can ripple out through the entire school.

I appreciated that not all of the action took place on the playground or in the school. Chevalier gives voice to Osei’s experiences at his other schools in New York City, London and Rome, what it’s like in his birth nation of Ghana, what life is like at home with his older sister who is learning to embrace her identity as a Black woman surrounded by so many White ones.

Osei’s anger and distrust builds throughout the novel, encouraged by the antics of Ian, the naiveté of Dee, and the discrimination from some of the teachers until the final horrifying moments of this little book.

New Boy makes Othello accessible for plebs like me. From what I can tell, it honours the spirit of the original while creating a story that has enough to say on its own.


7 thoughts on “Updating Othello

  1. I saw this play years ago and have a hard time imagining it on “playing out” on the playground, but I find the idea really intriguing. I want to see how Chevalier does it. Anne Tyler did a similar thing with her book Vinegar Girl which is a retelling of Taming of the Shrew and a pretty fun read, too. 🙂

  2. I heard Tracy Chevalier talking about her book on the radio. I think it was on “q”. Among other things, she spoke about her own childhood in Washington DC.
    Anyway, the book sounds good!

  3. I’ve seen other bloggers review this book, but I think it’s your review that finally made me see why the playground setting works so well. Originally, I was not convinced that a playground could capture the deep love that Othello and Desdemona feel for each other, but the 6th grade playground sure is a great place for betrayal. And kids that age change loyalties so easily, much like what we see in Othello.

  4. Pingback: DNF Chronicles: Two for the price of one | The Paperback Princess

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