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The Nickel Boys: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020 Paperback – 31 July 2019
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From the award-winning author of The Underground Railroad comes another searing novel exploring America's racially troubled past . . . a real page-turner (Mail on Sunday)
[Whitehead] has produced yet another modern classic . . . He's also adept at creating characters of unforgettable flesh-and-blood immediacy, with even the swiftest pen portrait conveying the full weight of a lived history. Quietly and purposefully heartbreaking in its portrayal of the lifelong legacy of abuse, it is quite outstanding (Daily Mail)
If greatness is excellence sustained over time, then without question, Whitehead is one of the greatest of his generation. In fact, figuring his age, acclaim, productivity and consistency, he is one of the greatest American writers alive (Time)
There's hardly a spare word in this book . . . Whitehead has a talent for creating ambiguous, complex scenes that fix in your memory. The Nickel Boys feels like a necessary fictional project, writing the blank or buried pages of US history; and it's done with virtuosity (Evening Standard)
Forceful and tightly wrought . . . Whitehead homes in on the way in which every action fits into a fully orchestrated whole, which is why I would wish everyone, black or white, to read this novel. He demonstrates to superb effect how racism in America has long operated as a codified and sanctioned activity intended to enrich one group at the expense of another (Guardian)
A furious, compassionate novel whose final sleight of hand will twist deep in your gut (Metro)
A masterful piece of very human storytelling (i)
Colson Whitehead's book is not a polemic, but in presenting the unconscionable history of this particular institution, keeping boys in solitary confinement or even burying them "out the back", he once again builds an allegorical history that resonates in the present (Observer)
Whitehead renders a terrifying world in disarming terms, lovingly guiding his reader to recognize the lasting impact of a cruel era (Time)
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- Item Weight : 300 g
- Paperback : 224 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0708899439
- ISBN-13 : 978-0708899434
- Dimensions : 15.2 x 2.2 x 23.4 cm
- Publisher : Fleet (31 July 2019)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #32,278 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The story is told matter of factly. No emotion, no character development. Generally, I enjoy books where I can follow the character's story and identify with characters. In this book, the story is so badly told that I fell asleep more often than reading.
I guess the only reason it won the prize is because the reviewers are supporters of the trend of poetic pretentious writing style.
The book was also listed as gay themed fiction. There is one sentence in the entire book suggesting a character to have had a gay sexual experience. This doesn't warrant to classify the book as gay reading material. Far from it.
The story starts with Elwood Curtis, a black boy from Tallahassee, who is raised by his grandmother right from when he was a child. He's influenced by Martin Luther King and maintains the highest moral standards. Elwood is pushed by his high school teacher into attending college. Unfortunately, before he even enrolls in college, he's sent to Nickel, a reform school for a crime that he never committed. Remember that the story takes place during the early Jim Crow era where blacks are discriminated and stomped upon.
Nickel is a reform school to the outsiders but it is a prison where students have to face violence, sexual abuse and unforgivable crimes on a day to day basis. Black kids are not even given a chance when it comes to their development. Here, Elwood meets a boy called Turner and what happens next is the story.
The Nickel Boys is a harrowing tale of the distressing Jim Crow era where blacks were subjected to racial discrimination and were victims of unforgivable crimes. A must read for everyone to understand the impact of segregation and racial discrimination on the modern era.
Interestingly, the setting for this story is based upon a real real reform school in Florida called the Dozier school for Boys.
When any book is such a struggle to read and get through, you know you will never revisit it or recommend it. The Nickel Boys sadly is that book for me this year.
The book starts off with great promise. The first part of the book is written with great insight, sensitivity, and empathy throughout. It is about Elwood Curtis and his life out of the juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy and inside of it. For a black teenager in the early 60s, all it takes is one mistake to destroy his future. The Nickel Academy is a hellish reform school, who has the outer façade of creating moral and upright citizens of delinquents who have lost their way. Beneath all of this, is a world of torture, discrimination, and instances that end in death.
Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, his dreams, his ambitions, and his idea of a free world are all left behind when he enters The Nickel Academy by no fault of his. Whitehead’s inspiration of the Nickel Academy came from the infamous Dozier school that made headlines as fake graveyards were discovered on the closed school’s grounds.
The Nickel Boys is mainly set outside of the school – part one and part three at that. While a lot is also set in it, as you can read in part two, as a reader I was left underwhelmed and wanting more. Also, Elwood suddenly is thrown in a world where he meets several characters (but naturally) and yet I could feel nothing for them. I wanted to. I so wanted to be immersed in this book, but I just couldn’t. For instance, Turner (one of the boys Elwood befriends) was one such character that wasn’t explored enough in my opinion. The constant battle of his pessimism and Elwood’s optimism is the only thing that stayed (beautifully done at that).
I understood the book – the nuances, the being an accomplice to what was going on inside the house for every boy once you walked into its doors to even the question of loyalty in a place like The Nickel Academy. Yet, with all its nuances and sometimes brilliant prose, I was left wanting more. The threads somehow didn’t connect and by the time I reached Part Three, I was drained of any comprehension to move on with the read. There is also no iota of character development. The book could’ve been longer and perhaps more time spent in letting us know about the characters and their lives, which sadly did not happen.
And yes, the dignity of human life, the assertion of black lives mattering, the understanding of injustices, and more than anything else persistence of the human spirit comes across in the book in bits and pieces, but I wish it was held together strongly. The book falters and stumbles, without any direction. The Nickel Boys was one book I was waiting to read with great anticipation. I wish I had enjoyed it with similar enthusiasm.
Top reviews from other countries
This book starts with an archaeological dig at a now closed boys' reform school. This is a stroke of genius. The period being disinterred is not some ancient native American site nor white settlers' site from centuries ago; it is a mere fifty years old and brings home the proximity of the crime the book goes on to expose to the light.
From the offset The Nickel Boys shows how the Nickel school is a condensed version of America and that the two - school and nation - coexist, each feeding, and feeding on, the same racist poisons as the other. Mr Whitehead has composed an arresting canvas of a "reform" school - no, institution; there is nothing resembling education or reform in the place - run and staffed by sadists with the connivance and sometimes willful ignorance of the " good " local grandees. Corruption by staff and by the beneficiaries of the boys' unpaid labour is rife. The violence is more hinted at than stated so we are left to focus on the moral and societal factors, not distracted by a verbal bloodbath.
Elwood, the central character, is a bright and decent boy of African/American descent sent to this appalling institution for an offence for which he did not have the necessary mens rea - he didn't know the car he was being given a lift in was stolen. Noone cared and Elwood, for his first and only offence is sent to Nickel School for reform. He was and remained a moral, free thinking, philosophical, bright kid who rides out his incarceration and sufferings with moral rectitude and a naiive belief in Martin Luther King's exhortation to love your oppressor. He was let down by his parents, by his lawyer and, eventually by the inspection team sent into Nickel School towards the end of the book.
Even in this appalling place the black inmates are treated worse than the white, reflecting again contemporary American society.
In the closing chapters there is a stunning, moving and wholly convincing turn in the story when… No, I won't spoil it but it will take your breath away.
The American English is sometimes a little difficult to follow, but persist; it is appropriate given the characters and their times and society, and really cannot be dispensed with.
The Nickel Boys is as good a work of literature and social history as anything I've read from an American author. It must, surely, become a classic.
It is a story based on similar institutions that were led in 1960's and 1970's, and I do get that some horrible, horrible things were happening at that kind of 'schools at the time'. I really respect Mr. Whitehead to open the topic to the public and start a discussion about what was really happening in America in those years. But I do miss some feelings in this book. Because I'm an emotional reader and to love a book I have to love it's characters, have to feel their emotions and have to care for their actions. And I just didn't have any of it here. Maybe I am weird, maybe I am cold, I don't know. But for me, it felt more like I'm reading a history manual rather than a historical fiction novel.
The Nickel Boys is an emotive and thought provoking title. The novel is loosely based around a real life true case of systemic abuse at a borstal type facility in 1960s America. Whilst the novel deals with themes of physical/emotional/sexual abuse, it does so in a sensitive manner. Only using scenes of violence to portray the fear within the boys and the complete and utter control their abusers have over them.
The novel is set in 1960s America the fight for civil rights is a backstory within the boys lives. But unfortunately equal rights will not come quick enough for Elwood and Turner. The boys come from very differing backgrounds, although both have known the emotional pain of abandonment and loss. Despite their different out looks on life, they instantly bond at the Nickel Academy. Their friendship will be the only saving grace during their time of detainment.
How do you follow-up a title as powerful as The Underground Railroad? How do you ever emulate a title that has had such global appeal and massive success?
Colson Whitehead has picked a real life part of history and used it to display how institutional racism gives way to abuse and even murder.
Life at the Nickel Academy is one of brutalisation, humiliation and loss of power for the boys detained there. How anyone can ever conceive that this environment would enable young men to make the changes they need, one can never truly know.
What the boys need is love, acceptance and a chance to learn. But there is NONE of that at the Nickel Academy.
I haven’t included any quotes in this review, as the title is only 208 pages. I raced through them at breakneck speed. leaving no time for note taking. Colson Whitehead has an exceptional way with words and there were many opportunities to quote moving passages.
The Nickel Boys is a hard-hitting title which is perfect for book groups, debate and discussion. I have a feeling it will stay with readers for a long time after the closing pages are finally turned!
Literary food for the soul, heart and the brain. 4.5*
Having said that, I found the main character very real; hard to say too much about the plot without revealing the late-on twist, which together with almost everyone else, I didn’t spot. I found it moving and shocking.
Based on the two Pulitzer winners so far, I’ll read Colson Whitehead’ s next book like a shot. He’s getting up there with the American greats.