It might seem like cheating to discuss a book by an American author so early on in this project, when the whole point is surely to open my eyes to other parts of the world. But after reading this short, devastating and immersive book I felt it had earned a place on the blog.

Colson Whitehead’s last novel, ‘The Underground Railroad’, won both the US National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

‘The Nickel Boys’ deals with the physical and metaphorical exhumation of the darkest recesses of USA history, and a part of its history about which I really knew very little.

The author has used as his inspiration the story of the US’s largest reform institution, the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which only closed in 2011. Racially segregated until the late 1960s, the school was dogged by long-standing allegations of abuse. The remains of many young boys were subsequently found in the grounds. A support group has been established by former students of the school.

The spare prose makes clear the horrors of the reform school to which Elwood Curtis, an academically brilliant young black boy, is consigned through a miscarriage of justice. However, the novel is never gratuitous in its evocation of Jim Crow-inspired violence and psychological subjugation. We are given just enough to paint a haunting picture.

The reader is emotionally involved in the plot, which twists and turns engrossingly, and is not without elements of pithy humour.

The novel discusses Martin Luther King‘s ideas and asks how one can challenge systemic racism. This all makes the novel sound very heavy-going and dry, but although it deals with serious issues, it is always a page-turner. This is down to Whitehead’s deft handling of the subject matter, and his application of a light touch where it’s needed.

The Nickel Boys was published earlier this year by Little, Brown, and it is a brilliantly written novel that I would recommend unreservedly.

“This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories.”

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