Book Review: Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Genre: YA, Dystopian Fiction

Publishing Info: Penguin Books (2017) – originally by Doubleday (2001)

Pages: 435

Back Cover Summary:

“You’re a nought and I’m a Cross and there’s nowhere for us to be.
Nowhere for us to go where we’d be left in peace. That’s why I started crying.
For all the things we’re never going to have”

Sephy Hadley and Callum McGregor have been friends since childhood, and they both know that’s as far as it can go. Theirs is a world full of racism, fear and mounting violence – where Noughts and Crosses are fated to be enemies.

Then, against all the odds, these star-crossed lovers choose each other. But this is a love story that will lead them both into terrible danger…

This review focuses on a re-reading of Malorie Blackman’s brilliant Noughts and Crosses, a book that I haven’t read since school. With a fresh look, I am able to see the fundamental messages of this book stronger and the quality of the narrative and writing style really helps to bring out those messages.

I first read this book in my English lessons at secondary school. Though the reader group the author was aiming for was in my age group, several of the underlying messages and themes weren’t totally grasped by me. That is why I chose to read Noughts and Crosses again, now I am an adult who understands being persecuted, alienated and made to feel like a second-class citizen for something about me that I can’t change. Malorie Blackman, the author of this book, chose to write this book as a head on response to racism and events in her past life, so the issues she tackles doesn’t suffer from being written from the point of view of someone who can’t truly understand the messages in their own book. Therefore, both protagonists, the nought Callum and the Cross Sephy (notice how only the word Cross is capitalized) are written as relatable, even if they aren’t perfect characters in their actions and thoughts. You can really see how the author’s personal experiences have shaped the characterisation and the dynamics between the two races, how no amount of big effort will force change, only antagonize those in power.

The book is split into several sections, jumping the reader forward anywhere from a few weeks to years. The second part of the book, following Sephy and Callum as the latter starts his first days at a predominately Cross school, is one of the strongest parts of the novel. Hatred and intolerance are taught rather than innate, as a child’s mind is accepting but at its most vulnerable to corruption. The treatment of Callum by teachers and pupils alike is a child’s biggest fear, to be pointed out and picked on for something about themselves that they can’t change. This fear can be felt by young adults of any colour, creed, religion or sexuality, which is why any reader can empathise and fear Callum’s situation in their own life. As an adult who has faced some kind of discrimination growing up for something I haven’t been aware of, I can now see the characters in a new light. These early sections also really help to crank up the tension when the politics and terrorist groups enter the fray.

The book constantly switches between Sephy and Callum’s point of view and I really like the way that they do this. There are sentences aplenty about how they feel about the situations they find themselves in and the events in the wider world, as is expected in order to provide the alternative viewpoints needed to illuminate the author’s experiences and how it relates to the message of the book. However, the more interesting element is how the author hides certain pieces of information from the characters until it is too late, like a letter delivered to one of them or crucial news about the other. Then, when the character is given that information or made to make a crucial choice, the readers don’t get to know what happens until they flick to the next section of the book, which could be weeks or years after the last. I would definitely describe this book as a page turner, as you care about the wellbeing of both of the protagonists; this is another positive from the early sections when you see them in a more innocent light.

This book is a pretty important one when discussing the representation of race in literature, especially within the Young Adult sub-genre. However, this book did take me longer than many recently, which I’m not sure is down to the fact that I have felt burned out recently or because I have read this book before. Even though I did pick up on a lot of messages now that I am older, it lacked the excitement that the first read had, possibly because I know exactly what was going to happen. Some books you can read over and over again and still get that sense of magic that you had when you first did it as a child – some of the Harry Potter series for example, and my one criticism of the book would be that I didn’t completely feel that this time around. I will definitely try to read the sequel of this book, Knife Edge, because I want to see where Callum and Sephy’s story goes next.

No matter whether you enjoyed reading this book or it made you feel very uncomfortable, you can’t deny that Noughts and Crosses is a very important book when discussing the history of racism in contemporary society and how it feels to be someone who is constantly persecuted for something that they cannot change about themselves.

Star Rating: 4.5/5

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