Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

I picked up Naughts and Crosses at the library a few weeks ago after reading positive reviews of it on I think it's safe to say the 2011, in addition to being the year in which I read a bunch of Victorian literature and classic feminist works, is the year where I read a whole bunch of dystopian young adult novels. So far, I'm enjoying the trend, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I tire of them and seek out something a touch more "serious."

Naughts and Crosses is typical of the genre in many respects. It tells of a friendship that blossoms into love between two members of opposing castes: Sephy (short for Persephone) is a Cross, while Callum is a Naught. Brought together by happenstance (Callum is the son of Sephy's nanny), their friendship endures after Callum's mother is unfairly fired by Sephy's family. As a member of the uppercrust of Crosses, Sephy isn't supposed to associate with Callum, but she can't seem to stop herself. Callum faces similar social pressures; his father and older brother have joined a militant group of Naughts who engage in domestic terrorism against the oppressive Cross regime, and they dislike his desire to attend a Cross school and remain friends with Sephy. Sephy and Callum find themselves caught in the middle of a violent social struggle.

The interesting thing about Naughts and Crosses is that its dystopia is racially inversed: Crosses, who rule the world, are black, while Naughts, who are only fifty years out from being slaves, are white. Visualizing the characters was sort of weirdly difficult for me; I had to keep reminding myself that Sephy was black and Callum was white, not the other way around. It's a sad commentary on the pervasiveness of racism in the human consciousness (and literary mind): no matter how progressive my politics may be, the idea of black people oppressing white people, even in a fictional context, kind of breaks my brain.

It was disorienting, but in a good way: band-aids are "flesh-colored"-- darkly, and stand out in stark contrast against the Naughts' skin, fashion magazines feature only black women, and Naughts are considered soulless because of their lack of color, or skin pigmentation. Religious texts and history books downplay the significance of Noughts and their contributions to society, and they are continually subjected to economic and social oppression. It was really interesting to see what a racist society in which whiteness is discriminated against might look like, and what being on the receiving end of it might be like. In light of the brain-twistiness that reading this book caused me (and, apparently, a lot of other people), I think it would make a really good movie.

3.5 out of 5 stars. There are apparently a few sequels, but I don't think I'm going to read them. I liked the way Noughts and Crosses ended so much that I'll pretend like it's a stand-alone novel.

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