By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth Shakespeare. 208 pp. $25
Some ideas - the Unicorn Frappuccino, Ryan Seacrest, American government - look better in theory than in practice. Same goes for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a clever-sounding plan to ask well-known authors to write novels based on the Bard's plays.
Now we have Tracy Chevalier's New Boy. No risk of its overshadowing Shakespeare's Othello the way Othello has completely eclipsed Cinthio's "A Moorish Captain." Chevalier has recast the play to illuminate the peculiar trials of our era. If it's not a classic novel, it's at least a fascinating exercise.
New Boy takes place in an elementary school in a Washington suburb. In Chevalier's handling, the insidious manipulations of Othello translate smoothly to the dynamics of a sixth-grade playground, with all its skinned-knee passions and hopscotch rules.
The scene opens on a spring day. Dee, the most popular girl in sixth grade, notices the new boy first. The only black student in school, he's standing apart from the other kids and dressed too formally. Dee introduces herself and learns he's from Ghana and that his name is Osei, or O for short.
The novel explores a spectrum of racial attitudes - from sympathy to fascination to outright revulsion. The 1970s setting allows Chevalier to follow reactions across the playground and into the teachers' lounge at a time of revolutionary social change.
But O's troubles do not come from the teachers and administrators. They come from Ian, harboring the green-eyed monster in his adolescent soul. He cannot abide O's quiet confidence and the attention he attracts from their classmates. As we watch Ian inject his poison into O and the rest of the class, we learn he's beaten at home and is the youngest of a series of tough brothers. Toxic as he is, it's apparent he's developed a manipulative personality in response to his circumstances.
How Chevalier renders Iago's scheme into the terms of a modern-day playground provides some wicked delight. She's immensely inventive about it all, substituting, for instance, a pencil case decorated with strawberries for the handkerchief that Othello gives Desdemona.
Inevitably, Othello works better, but that's inevitable. Chevalier's realistic prose and naturalistic characters eventually clash with the melodrama that overtakes the plot. But by that time, the story of O has reached such a disturbing pitch that you can't do anything but stand stock-still in the sand and watch this poor boy's life crash.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.