When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Title: The Nickel Boys | Author: Colson Whitehead | Publisher: Doubleday | Pages: 213 | ISBN: 9780385537070 | Publication date: 16th July 2019 | Source: Purchased
There’s this thing where when a writer is respected enough, their books transcend genre. So, Murakami’s ‘1Q84’ isn’t science fiction, Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t write horror, and Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Nickel Boys’ isn’t a crime novel. Call me old fashioned, but when a book Is set in a reform school, features multiple injustices, jail breaks and a decades old mystery, I’ll shelve it alongside Mosley and Lehane.
‘The Nickel Boys’ isn’t any old crime novel, it’s a truly great one. In its hero, Elwood, it has a memorable and sympathetic protagonist. The narrative spans several decades, focusing on his incarceration as an adolescent in a juvenile reformatory, the Nickel Academy, in the 1960s, but also covering his later life. It’s based on a real institution, which makes the shocking acts of cruelty that are meted out on the Nickel boys all the more shocking.
I’ll confess that I wasn’t a huge fan of Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’, but this book has made me want to read everything else he’s written. It’s a beautifully structure book, the flitting between eras allowing him to tease out the story’s mysteries and examine the echoes of the characters’ mistreatment on their adult lives. It has a searing sense of justice, but also of realism. The world is a fucked up place and whilst racism in the USA isn’t as horrific today as it was in the 60s, there’s still a long way to go.
What impressed me most of all though was the prose. At just over 200 pages the book is brilliantly sparse, always easy to read but full of impact. Whitehead never overplays his hand, knowing just how much to say to land a gut punch, without every making the reader weary. The result is a book that is memorable, moving, funny and gripping. Most of all it has real power. It left me angry but hopeful.