The sub-title of this novel is Othello Retold. Tracy Chevalier, writer of Girl with a Pearl Earring, has set her version of the powerful Shakespearean tragedy in a 1970s Washington high school and having read it, I am still not sure whether to class it as Young Adult Fiction or simply fiction. Whatever its genre, it is a cracking read and as always with this writer, the characters are strongly drawn and the drama intense.
The new boy of the title is Ghanaian Osei Kokote, son of a diplomat recently moved to the city. It is his fifth school in as many years and he has worked out that, in this all too familiar situation, he needs to find a friend on day 1. For an 11 year-old he seems remarkably self-possessed, confident and conscious of his effect on his peers: he is the only black student in the school.
He finds a friend in Dee, the most popular girl in the school and teachers’ pet, niceness personified and keen to fulfil the role. The Iago character is Ian, sharp, streetwise, manipulative and jealous. He dislikes Osei on sight and determines to put a stop to the friendship.
The writing is concentrated, the drama fast moving. At first sight I thought to set it among 11 year-olds would be unconvincing – too many adult emotions swirling round a group of not yet teenagers. But it works. The ending is to some extent predictable, yet comes as a surprise and leaves the reader in shock.