Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys (3 stars)

Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

Follow-up to Pulitzer-winning work confronts racial injustices in America

Colson Whitehead's follow-up to 2016's Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad employs 20th-century realism to confront racial injustices in America. The Nickel correctional school of the title is based on Florida's Dozier School for Boys, where multiple graves of abused pupils were recently excavated.

The Nickel Boys follows Elwood Curtis through boyhood in 1960s Tallahassee, later life in New York, and the ragged wound in between of Nickel. With its high-school setting and moral clarity, it is surely destined for Higher English reading lists. The narrative voice is clear, stern and wise, although sometimes clunky – cigar smoke is 'potato-y', a room has 'a weird thing to the acoustics'.

The first half gathers pace and detail. Young Elwood is likeable and bookish, and his prospects seem bright – but the reader knows the tragic arc of black American history; there will be no victory without struggle and setback. Sure enough, Elwood is unjustly incarcerated in Nickel and his time there is a subversion of children's boarding-school tales. The boys forge friendships and plan pranks, but here, the punishments are pederasty, racism, and beatings so hard they scar the mind and body for life.

All this haunts the emotionally richer second half, where the older, regretful Elwood lives a life never quite free of Nickel's long shadow. Nickel Boys shows us how hard it is to break the habit of cowering; this is a novel about justified, inescapable, overwhelming fear and how it scars even – perhaps especially – the defiant.

Out now via Fleet.

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