on 28 December 2013
I signed up to be a World Book Night giver this year when I saw Noughts & Crosses on the list. I first read this a few years ago when my younger brother (then 11, but with a reading age a few years older) recommended it to me, went on to read the whole series, and have recommended it to several people since. So I'm really glad to have the opportunity to hand out free copies to an audience who might not normally pick up this kind of book!
Malorie Blackman imagines a society where American history has been turned on its head: the dark-skinned Crosses are the ruling class, while the pale (or `blank') noughts are second-class citizens with recent memories of slavery. Sephy Hadley is a Cross, the daughter of a prominent politician and a lady of leisure. Callum McGregor is a nought, the son of Mrs Hadley's housemaid. Because of their mothers' working relationship, Sephy and Callum have grown up together and forged the strongest kind of friendship. At the start of the novel, Callum is in his mid-teens and is starting to realise how difficult - and even dangerous - it might be to maintain their friendship. Sephy is a few years younger, and more sheltered in her upbringing, and remains naively optimistic.
Their first test comes when Callum starts at Sephy's school. He is one of a very small number of noughts allowed, for the first time, access to the same education as Crosses and he is full of hope for the future. While his brother Jude (and, to some extent, his parents) feel nothing but anger and hatred, Callum is determined to beat the system from within: he will receive a good education, find himself a good job and make a difference. Unfortunately, both Callum and Sephy underestimate the prejudice, distrust and open discrimination that the nought students will face. Their second test begins when the Liberation Militia (a nought organisation, branded as terrorists by the Crosses) engineers an attack on a shopping centre, and Callum and Sephy find themselves on opposite sides of a widening chasm.
As well as the clear influences of recent political history, there are also echoes of Romeo and Juliet in the novel - any teenage novel needs a good romance plot, after all! I actually really liked the presentation of Callum and Sephy's relationship, and the way it changes over time (the novel spans several years). Initially, their main concern is being able to sit together at lunch and it's hard for them to imagine that anything could really come between them. As they grow older, and realise that they might want more than friendship, the ups and downs of their budding romance become more complicated and more adult (making Noughts & Crosses more suitable for secondary-school children than younger readers).
I also think that Malorie Blackman handles the core issues of racism and equality perfectly for her target audience. It would have been easy to write a simplistic morality tale where equality is not only the right solution but an easily-attainable state. Instead, she crafts something more intricate and more real, with shades of grey and situations open to interpretation. There are no clear and easy divisions between `good' and `bad', and she uses her characters to really illustrate to young readers that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter (for example). Viewpoints and individual perspectives shift in response to events, certain characters are revealed to bridge opposing sides, and reader sympathies are challenged throughout. For me, it's also significant that Malorie Blackman follows the story through to its conclusion with integrity, avoiding the temptation to tie things up with the rosy ending that young readers might want.
On the downside, I did find the writing a tad unsophisticated. I've read a lot of teenage and young adult fiction in the past few years and I don't believe that the writing needs to be dumbed-down or over-simplified. As far as Noughts & Crosses goes, there are things I like: the very short chapters make it extremely accessible, and the two main character voices are reasonably well differentiated. But I was disappointed by the dialogue, which I found clunky and unrealistic. First, in the early chapters, conversation between characters is used to fill in lots of backstory and blanks for the reader - Callum's parents provide a convenient synopsis of Cross and nought history in a very contrived argument, for example. Second, characters use each other's names far too often - I assume this was an attempt to minimise signposts in the surrounding narrative, but it came across as very unnatural and quickly began to grate on me. And finally, the contractions! I can appreciate that shouldn't've and d'you perhaps reflect conversational speech, but I think it's overdone. I also think it's unlikely that they'd be used quite so often by lawyers and judges in court...
There were also occasional errors in my Kindle version - but that could be down to the e-book editing. I had a flick through the paperback, though, and the headmaster's name does inexplicably change from Corsa to Costa halfway through!
There's a lot here for any reader, but particularly those in the young adult audience, to think about and discuss. Not just in terms of the big questions, either, but in some of the small details: Sephy's sudden realisation that plasters are coloured to suit the skin of the `superior' class will no doubt strike a chord with young readers and prompt conversation about other such everyday examples of inequality. I can see this being a great book for group reading activities in schools, or for parents to read and discuss with their children. I'm sure Noughts & Crosses has its critics who will complain about aspects of its presentation of complex race issues, or certain twists in the tale, but I read it for what it was: a novel aimed at young teenagers, attempting to shine a light on issues that have had a huge impact on recent history and indeed the world we live in now. It might not be To Kill A Mockingbird, but it doesn't have to be: if it blends aspects of popular teenage fiction with historically and politically meaningful themes, and that's enough to spark an interest and encourage readers to learn more about those themes, that can only be a good thing.
And the best thing: it doesn't end here! The series continues with Knife Edge, Checkmate, Double Cross and Callum (a short story companion to Noughts & Crosses).