Osei Kokote is a Ghanaian diplomat’s son. He arrives at an all-white school to attend the last month of Grade 6. The smart, popular, all-American girl, Dee Benedetti, is assigned to help him through his first day. A mutual attraction is evident from the beginning, though Dee’s best friend Mimi advises caution. Mimi’s boyfriend Ian also looks askance at Dee’s relationship with a black boy who also threatens his position as king of the schoolyard: “Ian would always notice anyone new who stepped into his territory. For the playground was his. It had been all year, since he had started sixth grade and there were no older boys to rule it. He’s had months to relish this domination. Any new boy posed a challenge. And this new boy, well . . . ” Ian uses his sidekick Rod to make Osei suspect Dee is attracted to Casper, the popular boy in the school, even though Casper is involved with Blanca.
Chevalier’s version parallels Shakespeare’s play quite closely. The names of the characters clearly suggest their counterparts in the latter. Besides Osei (Othello), Dee (Desdemona), Ian (Iago), Mimi (Emilia), Rod (Roderigo), Casper (Cassio), Blanca (Bianca), the teacher who distrusts Osei is Mr. Brabant (Brabantio), and the principal is Mrs. Duke. The handkerchief with embroidered strawberries from Othello’s mother has become a pencil case embossed with strawberries belonging to Osei’s beloved sister. There are some nice touches: apparently “Osei” means noble, a trait emphasized in Othello. When Osei becomes less rational, Chevalier even includes some animal imagery to describe him, just like Shakespeare does: “he looked like a wolf growling.” Love changes Desdemona such that she disobeys her father Brabantio; Dee also becomes a bit of a rebel and stands up to Mr. Brabant even though he is “the teacher you impressed if you could – the way she felt about her own father.” Ian’s last words (“Nothing. I have nothing more to say”) copy Iago’s “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./ From this time forth I never will speak word.”
Though clever in its parallels, this retelling does not always work. The main characters are in Grade 6 and between 11 and 12 years of age, but they seem very sexualized. They engage in French kissing and sexual touching, “make out” in corners of the playground, and speak about “going all the way”. I understand schoolyard drama with its ever-shifting allegiances and ever-changing crushes, but pre-teens 40 years ago were less sexually aware than modern tweens. (I couldn’t help but think that Chevalier was thinking of Shakespeare’s Juliet who is 11 years old.) The children in the novel are also inconsistent; at times they behave childishly and play childish games but at other times make mature, insightful observations and are very self-aware. I think high school students as main characters would have been more appropriate.
Another issue I had is the duration of the story. I understand that Chevalier was following Aristotle’s unities of action, place and time (a single action represented as occurring in a single place and within the course of a day), but she could have dispensed with this theatrical convention since she was writing a novel. Dividing the story into five parts of the school day spent in a school yard (before classes, morning recess, lunch, afternoon recess, after classes) is a nice nod to the five acts of the tragedy but is not really necessary. The events occur in about 8 hours at most.
A strength of the novel is its examination of racism. It is emphasized much more in the novel. The treatment Osei receives from classmates and teachers is very much caused by racism: “In some ways overt racism based on ignorance was easier to deal with. It was the more subtle digs that got to him.” There is no doubt that the racism “a bl – a new boy” encounters is realistic.
The character of the villain is problematic. In the play, Othello believes Iago because he has made himself seem very trustworthy. His behaviour seems exemplary so it’s plausible that Othello fall for Iago’s manipulations. Ian’s behaviour, on the other hand, is not exemplary; he is a bully whom everyone, even the teachers, fears and no one trusts. There has not been sufficient time for Ian to prove himself trustworthy. Osei even sees Ian bullying the younger students. Why then would Osei trust him and believe him so easily? He so easily distrusts Casper whom everyone seems to like, but he doesn’t question the motives of the boy who is disliked by virtually everyone? Osei seems exceptionally even-tempered but then rapidly changes into someone quick to anger, and that character change is not believable either.
The book is a quick, undemanding read. It adapts some elements of the tragedy in an interesting way. Unfortunately, the use of pre-teens as main characters and the adherence to the unity of time do not work convincingly. The novel lacks depth; I found myself reading only to see how the author would adapt the ending of Othello.
Note: I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.