Amidst the current panic buying and stock piling, I have to put my hands up and admit that buying more than I can get through has always been a fault of mine…but only when it comes to books (and dresses too, possibly). There is a tower of novels growing ever taller on my bedside table which is added to as quickly as it is worked through. My problem – or rather, ‘my toxic trait’ to use the parlance of my generation – is that I see a book I know I want to read, buy it before I forget it, add it to the pile and tell myself that it’ll be the next book I read after finishing my current one, but without fail another book will have taken priority by the time I’ve turned the final page of my current read and thus, the tower grows another tier. I keep telling myself that on my next holiday I’ll work my way through the mound, that I’ll read blissfully for hours on a quiet Caribbean beach with no Whats’app or Instagram pinging for my attention, but alas no such holiday seems likely at present. I’ll blame it on the worldwide blocks on travel, but between you and I, my bank balance imposed a travel ban long before Coronavirus did!
Noughts & Crosses was one of those books staring at me from my bedside table for weeks, judging me as I bought and read another book instead of taking one from the growing pile. Looking back, I cannot believe I waited this long to get my teeth into it – it is, without hyperbole, the best fiction novel I have read to date.
The racially subversive plot is set in a dystopian UK where black people – known as Crosses – are the ruling race, following the African invasion of Europe centuries before. It is set a few generations post-slavery, where the white people – known as noughts – are no longer deemed as property but are in no way equal to their black counterparts. They enjoy very few of the legal rights from which the Crosses benefit: they have separate and inevitably worse hospitals, segregated shopping centres, their schools are largely separate and the vast majority of the wealth is in the pockets of the Crosses whilst noughts take only low-skill low-pay jobs. Think 1950s America, but in reverse with modern twists.
For me, the genius of Blackman is demonstrated in the inclusion of microaggressions which remain prevalent today and yet are often overlooked unless they are experiences which have affected you or those like you. For instance, the absence of plasters that match the skin tone of the less important race, which is in this case the noughts. The aggressive questioning of how a nought could afford a train ticket and the unspoken assumption that he must have stolen it is another powerful reference which is not over-laboured but feels uncomfortably familiar.
Set against this backdrop of a society marred by deep-seated racism and hate-driven violence, is the story of two young friends: Sephy, a female Cross and Callum, a male nought. As they mature, so too does their relationship with friendship developing into a beautiful but struggling romance. The romantic plot was admittedly part of the reason why I refrained from reading the novel for as long as I did. As a reader I often despair with romance novels as I find the same old cliches trotted out time after time after time, but Noughts & Crosses boasts a plot like no other.
Sephy’s views are at variance with the majority of other Crosses – she longs for equality between the races, however her sheltered and privileged upbringing results in her being naïve to the dangers Callum faces on a daily basis. The dissonance between Sephy’s desire for racial equality and the policies of her father, the Home Secretary who seeks to robustly uphold segregation, is a root of anguish for the young female as she must choose between Callum and her family.
Callum is not without his own dilemmas. His hatred of Crosses becomes implacable as his family suffers tragically at the hands of a system designed to punish noughts for merely existing. Amidst the strife and heartache, he must choose between Sephy – his soulmate but who personifies such a system – and joining his pugilistic brother Jude in the Liberation Militia, a nought army making inroads into political discourse through acts of terror and violence.
The societal backdrop so clearly presages heartbreak, turmoil and tragedy and as a reader you fear that the outcome of this self-immolative relationship is written in the runes, but a part of you still clings onto the hope of a happy ending. Whether or not that happy ending materialises is something I shall leave you to find out for yourself…
If you don’t have a copy of Noughts & Crosses, you need one right now! Having binged the TV series since finishing the novel, I would strongly suggest reading the book before indulging in the screen version which, although excellent, explores a different plot to the one in the novel. However, before you grab your copy, I must warn you that once you start reading the first chapter, it will dominate your life until you’ve turned the last page. So clear your emails, complete your to-do list, stick the kettle on and prepare to be completely consumed by Malorie Blackman’s masterpiece.