Review: Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Noughts & Crosses (Noughts & Crosses, #1)Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel an enormous amount of pressure writing this review, but probably not for the reason that you might think. “Noughts and Crosses” tackles very difficult subjects in a multidimensional, emotional way. It features a relationship that has deeper implications than one may figure it on the surface.

To preface the whole of this review, my viewpoints and perspective going into and coming from this book will not speak for any and all who may peruse it – let alone other people of color who may pick this up and judge it from their respective positions and experiences. Yet, I think of the novels I’ve perused in the reverse discrimination measure, this is the one that was closest to hitting the nail on the head with how to portray it – with sensitivity, with enough wiggle room to get you to think on the subject matter for itself while still exploring progressive attitudes, and even if the characters were naive as anything else (and oh were they in this book!), they had a tough coming of age as the narrative moved forward.

I have a few points I want to make starting off this review before delving into the story itself, maybe it might help you to understand how I took this narrative in on a personal level.

Let’s begin with a bit of a reflection. Noughts and Crosses was written by a woman of color from the UK, yet she told a narrative that really spoke to me in more ways than one as an American woman of color. One thing that Blackman mentions in the heart of this novel is that – and I’m paraphrasing this – history is often lost to time in the scope of narrative, shaped by the winners of conflicts where there may be deeper implications that run with those. And that has been proven to be true – we don’t always hear all of the stories that go into the struggles of oppression of any minority group – the focus here being race.

We don’t hear the individual story of the black young lady who’s denounced by members of her own race for having an insinuated sexual relationship with a white man. She’s told that she’s “easy” or “too good” to have a relationship with someone of her own background. In the heart of that particular time, there were even some who considered any kind of interracial relationship – regardless of consent or age – as an argument for accusations of rape.

We don’t hear the individual story of the white male who – for daring to have any kind of relationship with a woman of any color, is not only socially/verbally denounced by his peers at their place of education and work, but abducted in the night by members of his own race, bound by his wrists, tied to the back of a vehicle and dragged for several yards as “punishment” for relating with “the enemy.” And then teeming on the barest thread of survival, after being dragged through mud, he’s told by his tormentors that he’s just as “dirty” as the person he loved.

You don’t often hear these individual stories of prejudice in textbooks where the larger social struggles are noted. The larger stories are certainly worth noting, but so are the smaller ones that aren’t often seen. Some of them are often lost to time where there are no longer those to tell them if they’re not written or passed across the generational gaps in various means – through art, through verbal stories, through varied dimensions. The above narratives I mentioned are true stories. Horrible but true. It makes me thank God I live in a time that I do, that the sacrifices that people made in the past shaped the present progressions known today so that they give me freedoms now that weren’t recognized in the past. But the pain remains knowing what people had to suffer through in order to get to that point.

Here’s where I get into the very significant difference between the approach in Blackman’s “Noughts and Crosses” versus Victoria Foyt’s “Revealing Eden (Save the Pearls #1)” and Laura Preble’s “Out” (the former dealing with racial relations, the latter dealing with GLBT relationships). I’m sure you guys knew this was coming from me because I read both of those books before “Noughts and Crosses”, and reading this made it more clear to me exactly where and why those books dropped the ball.

1. Focus on the characters, not simply the issue. In Blackman’s narrative, you understand who Callum and Sephy are from the get-go and are given a chance to care about them, even if their attitudes and positions in the dynamic of the conflict are not shaped because of their naivete. Sephy’s 14 when the narrative stars, Callum’s 15 – they’re kids, and plausibly just coming to age with some of the measures working against them (though I would argue in real world context, there are some children who’ve had to come to terms much sooner than that – see the story of Ruby Bridges, if you want an example.)

Granted, yes, Sephy’s father is in politics and he has very strong political and prejudicial opinions that are obviously anti-Nought (Noughts are white, Crosses are Black in this world). She’s a member of a family who is in a position of power, and with that power comes the potential for the struggle dynamic.

You also understand that Callum’s family is the victim of oppression in more than one dimension (his mother was fired from her job, subverting the education of one child – Jude – towards another’s. The other in this case being Callum.) Callum and Sephie live in a social climate that makes it very difficult for them to be friends. The story doesn’t do it in a way that obviously milks the dramatic contexts. Callum wants an education, though his family pushes him with respect to his achievements. Sephy’s in an isolated environment with respect to her father’s ranking and everything she does gets put across in a measure of her “privileged” lifestyle. So when Callum, pretty much the closest person she has to a friend, is allowed to attend her school among a small group of Noughts – it hits very close to home in its parallels to what happened with integration of the schools/working against the Jim Crow “separate but equal” measure in our real society.

The characters and how they deal with the issues – not the issues working them – are shaped in the framework.

Callum and Sephie are also established to have had a relationship for a long time – not an instalove measure. They endured a significant deal of challenges to that relationship from family and external measures. For example, I think the story of what happened on the train was worth noting. Their different viewpoints and coming to terms with the incident was a great illustration of how they recognized the prejudices surrounding them, but weren’t aware of how to speak of them to each other because of their respective ages and coming to terms with how society viewed their interactions. It felt realistic.

For Victoria Foyt, trying to show prejudice in “Revealing Eden” was a cluster you-know-what from the very beginning. It was all about Eden, it was never about anyone else but Eden, and she made it about her “Help! Help! I’m being oppressed, and I’m not going to even try to come to any kind of understanding of the other party other than through TRU LUV!” almost from the very get go. It was hard to sympathize with her, let alone the messages that were beaten over the head about her skin color, about her villainizing everybody else who was different from her, the implausible way that functioned in her not-so-scientifically sound society, among other aspects.

For Laura Preble, “Out” had the instalove factor that killed it just as much as the casual dismissal of all the rules in the overblown society that was working against their relationship, right up until around the time when their relationship was “discovered.” Instead of properly developing the characters and the issues they dealt with – it was all about the “love machine,” the way they biologically “fit” with each other (*cringes*), and the attitudes that were projected rather than shown in the dynamic and stakes of the story.

2. Contexts that actually make sense! Even for the discrimniflip senario that’s in this book – the “what if” here makes more sense and feels less forced down the throat of the reader. It gives you the chance to consider several things. What if the minority group faces educational limitations, has to deal with common slurs and everyday examples of prejudice, what if they face internal prejudices that come with skin color and perceptions of beauty, what if the limitations exist in trying to find employment or make a living for one’s family, and even being able to not cope with the smaller scales of oppression in addition to the larger ones and taking steps to bite back against it – fight fire with “fire”? I really appreciated that Blackman dealt with all of these dimensions, and she does so in a way that makes you feel the losses when they hit (and they hit pretty hard).

I did read in one consideration that the violent aspects in this weren’t plausible and were used for melodrama and/or stereotyping against the minority, but I have to refute that with the power of a thousand…somethings here. The path to civil rights in this country, among others, has often had the incurring of loss of life and violent uprising to shape a part of it. It’s a part of the struggle and a realistic notation of different approaches to gain the same means. There have been demonstrative measures done in peace in the scheme of the Civil Rights movement (sit-ins such as the one at the diner in Charlotte, NC, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat in Alabama, the March on Washington, etc.), but for that, there have also been bloody violent uprisings/tragedies that have shaped the Civil Rights movement just as well (the four girls who were killed in the church bombing, movements by the Black Panther party who clashed in several ways in order to fight against their oppressors, etc). I saw the parallels the story was trying to draw with that and it didn’t feel exploitative to me, but rather an alternate mirroring that took into consideration many dimensions, though certainly not all.

The group that Callum becomes immersed in after the certain tragedies that occur in his immediate family felt plausible to me because of the motivation and conjunction of the group trying to fight against the oppression of the society. Do I believe what they did (Callum included) was right? No, I don’t – it boiled my blood when I read it, and particularly how Sephy ended up becoming involved in that crossfire. Do I think it could’ve been portrayed a bit more even? Absolutely, it had some clear flaws in the portrayal. But at least I understood it. I understood the events that led up to that point, even if it felt like a stage drama on the level of “Romeo and Juliet”, “West Side Story”, “Raisin in the Sun”, or something along that notation. It was dramatic, maybe even a little overmuch with the drama in measures, but it sold its point to me.

For Victoria Foyt’s “Revealing Eden” – it was ridiculous to the point of oblivion. It wasn’t plausible considering the heavily scientifically inaccurate hinging of “melanin theory” in that shaping of the world, it wasn’t plausible that Eden Newman (note the name) was the saving grace of the “Pearl” race, “creationist theory” and championing of mankind, and it wasn’t plausible in any consideration that she, in her relationship with Bramford, spent almost every other chance denouncing and capitalizing on her prejudices against him among other racial groups, then turning around and saying “I love you”. *rolls eyes*

For Laura Preble’s “Out”? The problem with that was the championing of one relationship without consideration or equivalent notation of the other or multiple dimensions. There wasn’t a two way struggle or examination of differences, but rather a heavily loaded statement of “This love is forbidden, you will suffer or die if you don’t conform.” When moralities were examined in the story, they were force fed to implicate the way you were to think about them, and when a point of contention or controversy would be brought up (i.e. the idea that men couldn’t be raped…*side-eyes the screen*), it was quickly dismissed without any kind of follow-up or coming to terms.

At least Blackman had the maturity to approach the divisions and build a plausible contrast within the world that was similar to the stakes of the reality we know, while building the realm in its own context.

That said – I did have some issues with “Noughts & Crosses”. It may take a bit of getting into because it’s slower paced and the characters are young and still coming to terms with the meaning of the prejudices they face in society in the beginning of the story. After a certain point, when the conflicts start hitting, they hit one right after the other. I actually came to feel for the characters after a time even when I felt their rationale infuriated me. There’s also a consideration that there may be so much emotional punch in this book coming in succession that some may feel it wipes them out or it may be too much for the overarching conflict/characterization. I think by a certain point of the book, I felt that it was one after the other and the worst possible thing you could think happened actually happened. It wasn’t without context or came out of nowhere, but it wasn’t pulling any punches – sometimes within contexts that I think could’ve been better fit for form.

I think Sephy and Callum’s romantic ties could’ve been better portrayed and in maybe more subtle cues within many of the overarching punches. Somehow I wanted more from it, though I saw the conflict between them and understood that while there were aspects that drove them apart, it was an appreciation and respect for each other that kept them close. Towards the end of the book, I had a problem with the sequencing leading up to the ending – I understood the context, but the development didn’t match to me and I don’t think many people would get the significance of that parallel and turn in the conflict for the social attitudes of the time/issue it’s mirroring.

And then there was the ending. THAT ENDING. Oh my word, my brain and my heart broke in two. It’s probably the best ending for something in the dramatic framework that I could think of for this story, but it packs a mighty punch in the spectra of the dramatic. I understood in some turns why it went in that direction, but for some, I could certainly see why it may not sit well in the overarching play by play this story takes in its progression. It may feel for some like one additional conflict that leaves you on the fringe among some of the others.

All in all, though, I actually liked this, and despite places where I think it could’ve established itself more than what it did, with greater degrees of vetting of the conflicts and examination of the character dimensions of the relationship, I appreciated what it provided in its consideration.

Overall score: 4/5

View all my reviews

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