The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Published: 1st August 2019 (Little, Brown Book Group)
‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’
‘Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it’.
Based on the brutal realities of the Dozier School for Boys, the horrors in these pages are nothing less than truths recast. But first comes the hope. Elwood Curtis is a bright light, fired by Martin Luther King and the fragile opportunities for hardworking, intellectual young men just like him. Opportunities to get ahead or make a difference. Opportunities for education, like the chance to attend college classes he’s just been given. Except that dream is quickly extinguished when he accepts a ride in a stolen car. How quickly one life can be changed beyond all imagining. Just this one small choice, this life-changing action, this inescapable new direction, choked me with the injustice of it all. Proof that even if you do everything right, for some people you will always be wrong. The question is this: is hope worth it? Was there ever going to be a different way for Elwood in this place, in this time?
This is the conflict that forms the fault lines of the novel, expressed through the characters of Elwood and his new friend at Nickel Academy, Jack Turner. Where one holds to the possibility of justice, idealistic in his hope that it is only ignorance not indifference (or even collusion) allowing the myriad abuses happening at Nickel to continue, the other understands that this is a broken world, one that has to be lived in and worked round, one not open to challenges or changes. How sadly relevant; the question as vital today as it was in 1960s America. This story is not just history, as the bones are not just archaeology. But how to respond? Perhaps the answer is in the ending, the two boys’ fight for survival resulting in only one kind of freedom.
Colson Whitehead’s last book ‘The Underground Railroad’ won a Pulitzer Prize (one of many accolades), but its narrative design distanced many readers from the story. Even so, the anticipation for his next offering has been deservingly eager. Whitehead is an author not afraid to tackle the black experience in a multitude of ways, but the straightforward, almost bare approach on display in this book is remarkably effective in revealing not only the effects of personal encounters with racism but the broader consequences of its underlying tenets. Much of this is due to the author letting the characters speak much more here, a raw act of being that needs no stylistic embellishment. While the ‘twist’ ending may be a deal breaker for some, it’s just another indication that the author has moved away from high-concept stylisation to something much more recognisable, popular, and perhaps mainstream. That’s not a criticism. If anything, the easy accessibility and directness of the language and style here highlights the everyday normality, the banal evil that feels like an emotional sucker punch. It’s the kind of writing that burrows a path straight to the heart.
A powerfully affecting novel which offers insights about both past and present. It’s unmissable fiction.
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ARC via Netgalley
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