Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

This, the first in a series of acclaimed young adult novels, is set in a segregated world very like our own but where white people are an oppressed underclass. 

I've seen something like this before. It was done in Fable, a 1965 episode of the BBC's anthology series, The Wednesday Play. There's also something of the same idea in MP Enoch Powell's notorious 1968 speech where he quoted one of his consituents - "a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman," according to Powell - who was convinced that, "In this country in fifteen or twenty years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man."

Fable and that speech were responses to legislation on race relations being put through Parliament at the time, but Blackman's novel is less about specific policy as it is about showing how privilege and prejudice shape the way we see the world.

We alternate between chapters narrated by rich black girl Sephy, whose racist dad is high-up in the government, and chapters narrated by Sephy's friend Callum, who is white. At the start of the novel, Callum has - with Sephy's help - passed an exam to be allowed to go to school, where he'll be one of a handful of white students. On his first day, there are protests outside the school to prevent him getting in. We follow Sephy and Callum through their school days and beyond, as they become ever more politicised by the unjustice and cruelty of their world - and face inevitable doom. 

Blackman makes the unfolding tragedy utterly devastating. We often see the same event first through the eyes of one of our narrators, and then completely differently when viewed by the other. We understand their disagreements and fights from each perspective, and continually learn why other characters behave in what seem mean and spiteful ways. Most haunting, I think, are the handful of characters struggling against insurmountable odds to change, to improve, the system. 

Along the way, the plot covers alcoholism, terrorism, violence and totalitarianism - in appropriate terms for the young adult reader, but not shying away from the moral dilemmas or profound questions involved. Blackman unfolds the story in short, emotive chapters, the prose immediate and straight forward. But the simplicity is deceptive: this is a rich, powerful and affecting novel. It underlines, too, that half a century after that race relations legislation was passed, there is still a long way to go.

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