Review of The Nickel Boys ( read in October 2020)
I don’t usually do this, but for once if I work out the averages of scores that you all gave the book after your own readings, it makes the following observation:
44% gave it 4.5 or 5 out of 5
38% gave it a 3.5 / 5
18% gave it a very low score!
Given the Pulitzer winning status of this book, that seems to be disappointingly low. Colson Whitehead has to be one of America’s most successful contemporary writers. The more cynical amongst us ( that would be me) look to his range of genres in previous books (from coming of age novel to zombie thriller) and wonder how much his writing is simply a commercial endeavour rather than a labour of love, but indeed is there any less merit in his books because of that? I was squarely challenged on that front by some of you, and rightly so.
The Nickel Boys is however a great example, like all ‘good’ novels, of a story that reveals more cleverness and subtlety the more you dig and discuss. It starts with a factual part of history and builds a fictional narrative around it, the author setting himself up to be the voice of the young black men that are under-represented, even in today’s survivor and justice groups.
Most agreed that the opening and finish were stronger than the middle part, although some appreciated that the boxing scene conveys the atmosphere well and highlights the struggle for power in the school. The book itself is actually quite short at 208 pages, so not difficult to finish, and Whitehead’s turn of phrase and characterisation was admired.
The bulk of our discussions centred around the two main characters, Elwood and Turner. However, we don’t even realise how important Turner is until the stunning twist near the end of the novel. Unless of course, you are particularly sharp as a reader and spot perhaps unlikely elements of Elwood’s adult life?
Elwood is the idealist, academic and serious, embracing Martin Luther King since childhood, always trying to support the underdog and seeing only the good in others – and doing himself no good at all in the process. So many of his life events are just an unlucky hair’s breadth away from a good outcome. But we don’t see his loss of innocence turning to cynicism in him, he seems to remain fragile and naive. Turner becomes his pragmatic, survivor friend, who tries to spring him from the home into freedom, who always has a more cynical and wiser attitude, and whose adult life is spent perhaps trying to live up to his friend Elwood, to make his life not seem in vain. The opening sequence of the burial ground is perhaps the growth in Turner, of him telling the story. This perhaps redeems the novel from its sense of futility?