As her contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of contemporary retellings of the Bard’s works, Chevalier (At the Edge of the Orchard, 2016, etc.) turns Othello into the story of a disastrous chain of events that follows a black student’s arrival at a white elementary school in suburban Washington, D.C.
Knowing Othello is a tragedy, readers begin the novel with dread, aware that at least one of the sixth-grade protagonists gathering before classes begin will likely meet a tragic end. Among the girls, Dee is smart and popular, Mimi intuitive and thoughtful, Blanca what used to be called “fast.” Blanca’s boyfriend, Casper, is the most popular boy, but “calculating” Ian runs the playground. The children are shocked by the arrival of Osei, a Ghanaian diplomat’s son and the first black child the all-white school has seen. Despite references to Soul Train and bell bottoms, the school’s straight-laced, narrow-minded atmosphere feels more 1950s than post–Civil Rights–era 1970s. Dee and Casper are the two exceptions. Casper offers friendship while the romantic attraction between Dee and Osei is immediately palpable—and goes over the top into ick-factor territory when Dee looks at Osei and “the fire leapt and spread through him.” Meanwhile, Ian senses Osei will challenge his sway over his classmates, especially after Osei shows prowess during a kickball game. Lacking Osei’s confusing charm, Ian comes across as a bully who controls through fear. He manipulates the other kids to create emotional mayhem that closely follows the original play’s outline. The book’s five divisions equate to the play’s five acts, and the novel’s primary pleasure lies in how Chevalier parallels Shakespeare’s plot details—for instance, transforming Othello’s handkerchief embroidered with strawberries into Osei’s strawberry-embossed pencil box and having the kids play on a playground pirate ship.
This follow-the-plot-dots modernization unfortunately falls flat due to Chevalier’s heavy-handedness in turning Othello into a polemic on the evils of American racism and her awkward shoehorning of tween angst into Shakespearian tragedy.