From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard
Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat’s son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970’s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
Starting off with a confession: I’ve never seen, read or heard Othello.
I have now read a quick summary and can identify all the main points which strongly came through in this book, so I’m obviously an expert now…
I’ve always found reading Shakespeare to be hard work and sometimes a thankless task, so I know that reading this book in school would have been the perfect starting point before reading the original. It’s all the same politics and manipulations, but set in a scenario we’re all familiar with – the playground.
In this case Osei (Othello’s stand in) is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, experiencing his first day in the 4th school he’s had to attend in 6 years. He’s a pro at this point and follows his usual procedure to make being the only black kid in an all white school as painless as it can possibly be in 1970s America – but things fall on their head when he meets Dee, a sweet girl in his class who instantly takes a shine to him. Now he has to work to be accepted rather than just ‘tolerated’ by his peers (ick).
The kids are ruled by their schoolyard alliances and habits, throw in racial prejudice and this book is an exceptionally well written train crash waiting to happen. Chevalier is a distinguished author at the best of times but I really think that this book is destined to become a classroom classic.
Each scene in the book is told from the perspectives of the main characters, so you get a glimpse of their feelings and motivations during the course of the story. For example, Ian (Iago), is an absolute bastard and does manipulative, nasty and downright violent things but there’s the hint that his home life isn’t great and that he’s the youngest of a bunch of horrible siblings – it doesn’t forgive anything that he does but encourages the reader to consider why he might be such a dick.
Thought provoking and bringing a Shakespeare classic forwards into a more accessible package, I really enjoyed this book.