Having now experienced the thing that is Noughts and Crosses, it is incredible to me that very few people in the UK seem to have heard of, let alone read this book. The Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman contains four books; Noughts and Crosses, Knife Edge, Checkmate and Double Cross. I have to say I wandered blindly into these books whilst browsing through a store and I am so glad that I did, as late to the party as I am. The added bonus of being so far behind of course is that you get to enjoy a series from start to finish in one setting, which is exactly what I did over the summer.
I am calling these books a series but in truth they read as more of a saga. HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS, THIS BOOK BLEW ME AWAY!!! The premise is nothing short of genius. Blackman has taken the concept of racism in all its ugly truth, the irrational thought processes that created it and the political ideologies that perpetuate it, flipped them both on their heads and created a modern, provocative masterpiece that left me spellbound.
Noughts and Crosses series follows three generations of two families, the Hadleys and the McGregors. The Hadleys are black, or crosses, and are highly influential family with Kamal holing a senior position in government which enables his family, a wife and two daughters to live a more than comfortable existence. The McGregors are white, or noughts and live on the flip side of the coin. As the white underclass their place within society is predetermined and they face a constant battle against prejudice and oppression.
The link between the two families comes from Jasmine Hadley and Meggie McGregor, the two mothers. Meggie works for Jasmine and there is undoubtedly a sincere friendship between the two of them. Tragically for both women (although it is tragic for different reasons) their friendship only lasts for a short while but it lasts long enough to pass something special down to their children Sephy Hadley and Callum McGregor, the main protagonists. Their relationship develops over time from an innocent childhood bond to something more serious and committed and seems doomed from the outset. The bond between their two races is frowned upon by both communities and neither is accepted into the other’s community no matter how sincere their intentions. Even as the noughts fight back against the inequality that exists in society it is clear that the offers being made by government to ‘improve their lot’ are nothing more than token gestures the aim of which is actually to set the noughts up to fail. Worse still for Sephy is the fact that it is her father who is responsible for the entire political farce.
It is Callum who becomes one of the victims of the charade that Kamal Hadley has created. Desperate to be more than the crosses decree he can be he gets the chance to attend the same school as Sephy. It doesn’t take long to see that his chances of successfully graduating are minimal to say the least. His treatment at the school is one of the defining moments in the book and his changing attitude towards the cross government. One thing that doesn’t change, even though it falters badly at times is the relationship between Sephy and Callum.
Whilst Callum struggles to keep his head above water and his mother tries to keep her family on the straight and narrow it is clear that Ryan and Jude McGregor (father and son number two respectively) have grown frustrated with the inequalities that exist and have chosen to adopt more subversive means in order to be heard. What follows is a chain of events that are nothing short of tragic and provides the setting for the next three books in the series all of which deal with the repercussions of the first instalment.
The mini-summery above (and believe me, it doesn’t cover half of the things I’d like to say, but I’d just be re-writing the book!) doesn’t begin to describe how brilliant this first book and its sequels are. Each and every character is superbly written and as such utterly believable. The character of Lynette, Callum’s sister, was beautifully written from start to finish, I absolutely adored the relationship between Sephy and Callum and I wanted to slap Kamal and Jude into next week! Noughts & Crosses left me feeling angry, frustrated, cheated, crushed and every emotion in between. The story itself, whilst described as dystopian, is timeless. Set some time in a potential future its core firmly exists in the past. It bought to mind the story of Rosa Parks, the images of the clashes at schools in Arkansas in the fifties and literary classics such as I Know Why the Caged Bird sings and To Kill a Mockingbird. I appreciate that the role between the races has been flipped 180⁰ but the wrongness of the philosophy still applies. The story is a multi POV which if anything makes it more poignant and the ending was nothing short of brutal, so much so I questioned whether I wanted to pick up Knife Edge, #2 in the series. I’m so glad I did. I’ll admit I didn’t get over Noughts & Crosses but I was equally enthralled by the next three books. Very few books leave me speechless and it’s taken me three weeks to figure out what to write. So the best I can say is this book is seriously underrated and if you haven’t read it yet, give it a try. It’s heavy going but you won’t regret it.
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