I remember there being a poster for this book on the wall of my library at primary school but I never really knew what it was about so I never got round to picking up a copy. Then a couple of weeks ago three events occurred, the stars aligned and the upshot was that a copy of Noughts & Crosses landed on my doorstep. When I opened it though I was immediately thrown into confusion.
First I’d unwittingly purchased a hard back copy which is hardly ideal commuting material.
Second this book was entitled Naughts & Crosses. ‘Have I been reading the title wrong all these years?’ I immediately asked myself. So I looked up on the Internet and no, I’d not been temporarily dyslexic every time I saw it so what was going on? My second thought was that maybe it was an American copy and they use an odd spelling (like sulfur, color, realize and all those other examples we Brits love to list). So I returned to Google and very quickly got sucked into a world of grammar forums and debates over the correct usage of nought, naught and aught. Anyway it all got a bit much and I decided just to run with it but for the purpose of this review I shall be using the conventional spelling with an o (for anyone who’s even slightly interested in this waffle my browser which refuses to acknowledge the existence of British English has tried to correct every usage of nought so I think my hunch about it being an Americanism is correct).
Anyway to the book itself.
The story is set in a world where continental drift never happened and Pangea is still intact. For various reasons I am aware of after reading Wikipedia the dark-skinned Africans (Crosses) had the upperhand and made the fair-skinned Europeans (noughts) their slaves. Although slavery has now been banned the two races still live in almost total segregation with the noughts living drab, unfulfilled lives while the Crosses laud it up in their mansions and positions of power. So basically we’re talking about 1930’s America but with the colours reversed. Where the names come into it I’m not quite sure.
We have two alternating narrators – Callum, a nought, and Sephy, a Cross who have been friends since childhood but as they move into adolescence things become more complicated. Callum is acutely aware of his position at the bottom of every ladder while Sephy seems unconscious of the charmed life she leads thanks to the colour of her skin. The world is changing and Callum becomes part of the fight for equality when he is permitted to join Sephy’s prestigious school and gain a previously unachievable education. But things rapidly spiral out of control thanks to a series of uncontrollable events and it seems the world is fighting to keep Callum and Sephy apart. Can their love survive?
It was an intriguing concept but I’m afraid I didn’t love this book. The story was good and I think I get the point (racism is bad and illogical whichever side it comes from, obviously something we should all agree with) but I just didn’t feel it.
For a start Sephy irritated the hell out of me. Yes, she’s a spoiled brat having been the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the world and had everything money could buy but did she have to whinge so much?? She rarely seemed to feel positive about anything or consider anything from anyone else’s point of view. Maybe that’s an accurate portrayal of a teenager but I for one thought she could do with a bit of a reality check. She seemed to have no understanding of or interest in what Callum was going through, just how it affected her. On second thoughts, maybe that’s not fair, she did try a few times but inevitably what was intended as a nice gesture ended in yet more self-pity.
Callum was a more relatable character and I came close to liking him but I felt that all of them lacked some kind of depth. I’m not sure what exactly it is that was missing, just something to make me care. And I didn’t feel any kind of spark between the two of them at all, I didn’t believe in their love at all.
I saw a review somewhere that blamed this lack of depth on the fact that it’s aimed at teenagers but I don’t think that’s fair at all, even Artemis Fowl had depth and made me care so how did such a well respected, prize winning author and children’s laureate fail where so many succeed? I have no answer to that.
The plot raced along. I’ve mentioned before that I get irritated when I can’t keep track of time and that was certainly the case here. There was at least one occasion when I moved to the next paragraph (no indents, spaces or anything) to find that 5 months had passed! But having said that there was plenty of action so I’ve no complaints there. And I appreciated the ending, I kept expecting her to wimp out but she didn’t so full marks for that.
I think one of my main problems with the book is that there was nothing special about it. Yes, the colours were the other way round but it was essentially a rewriting of history, there was no twist and so it seemed almost a pointless gimmick. Why not just write the same book but set it in the US in 1934, why a different world? It didn’t make sense and I kept expecting more.
I feel like I’m flying in the face of convention a bit here. It’s the first time I’ve read one of Blackman’s books but I know how well loved she is and it’s rare to find a bad thing said about Noughts & Crosses so to reiterate: it’s not a bad book it just needed a bit more oomph for me to love it.
PS. I don’t have Internet at home for the moment but when I do I’ll upload a picture of my book with its confusing a. Check back sometime after the 9th October (!!) if you want to see that.