Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman is the tale of a world with a clear class distinction, an alternate universe in which racial and social roles are completely reversed. The world is run by the dark-skinned Crosses and served by the white Noughts—hatefully called daggers and blankers, respectively.
The story is that of Sephy Hadley and Callum McGregor , whose love and friendship struggle against the wide gap between their social standings. Sephy, a Cross, is the daughter of one of the most powerful politicians in the country, while Callum is a low-class “blanker,” and would never have met Persephone had his mother not been working for hers. Still, Sephy and Callum build their friendship in secret hours on a strip of beach and midnight meetings in a rose garden. To them, it doesn’t matter that she is a Cross and he is a Nought; they are both simply people. But when Callum is accepted as one of the first Noughts into Sephy’s all-Cross school, everything changes. And as Callum’s family gets more wrapped up in the violent civil rights terrorist organization known as the Liberation Militia, the stakes get even higher. The story whirls into a fast-paced tale of love and trust and hatred and hurting, race and rights and human nature, all tying into the breathtaking climax; a ending no one could have predicted.
Noughts and Crosses is possibly one of the best books I have ever read.
It could easily have been a simplistic story about how racism is bad and all are equal (which is perfectly good and true, but makes for a rather predictable novel), but Noughts and Crosses delves into the deeper, rawer side of that. Rather than simply black-white racism itself, the story examines human nature and the foundation of prejudice. I think the most important thing was the reversal of who had the power. With the dark-skinned people in charge rather than the light-skinned, real-life politics and pre-formed notions are stripped away, and we are left with simply a picture of prejudice.
What was interesting was how false notions about African Americans that have mostly died out the idea that they smell bad, are less clean, and so on, translated to the blacks’ perception of whites. And it fit perfectly! In this scenario, the whites were portrayed as the dirty second class, and all of the terrible racial stereotypes people held and still hold about blacks are given to the whites in this book. One can see that they have nothing to do with a particular skin color, merely the fact that the color is different and perceived as inferior.
The book studies these ideas far more naturally and subtly than I do, giving them a pronounced presence in the story without ever having to state them bluntly as I have just done. Truly, this book is excellent. It does delve into really interesting questions and ideas, but it also paints a picture of friendship and love startlingly well.
Noughts and Crosses is the first in a trilogy, and I give it five out of five daggers. And no, I don’t mean the fictional slur for the Cross class.
Thinking and mind-blown,
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)
Just to warn you, the following review may be a little biased as this book is the one I would rush to save if a fire broke out. I just adore everything about it.
Firstly, I think it is only fair to say that this novel and the consequent books in the series have become such a huge success because of the abilities of Malorie Blackman. There are an extraordinary amount of themes and morals being juggled throughout, but the novel is almost effortless to read. Young adult books tend to be full of anxieties about identity, romance and growing up, but Malorie adds other issues to these personal preoccupations within the novel. Sephy and Callum also have to manage these individual anxieties with social expectations and prejudices around race. The novel could very well have felt clumsy and like a tirade of moral debates, but the social commentary fits seamlessly within the plot.
Sephy and Callum are young teenagers and live in a world where black is right, and white is wrong. Callum and his family struggle to operate in a society where they are constantly undermined and denied opportunities because of their pale skin. Sephy is the daughter of politician Kamal Hadley and lives a seemingly luxurious life. As Sephy and Callum’s worlds continue to intertwine, their feelings for each other become inevitably romantic. It becomes painfully obvious to the reader that their relationship will struggle to exist in society.
The novel is narrated in first person by both Sephy and Callum. Some very tender and emotional scenes are depicted brilliantly through this narration. At times Sephy and Callum become distant from each other but the narration doesn’t the distance the reader and we can still access their most intimate thoughts. Whilst the novel is primarily focused on Sephy and Callum as individuals and as a couple, Blackman does not deny the reader of other complex characters. The story of Callum’s sister Lynette is particularly heart wrenching and the depiction of Callum’s brother Jude is painfully realistic. These characters actually become necessary for the reader to understand how complex the protagonists’ worlds are.
Callum manages to pass exams which allow him to go to Heathcroft school where Sephy attends. Desperate to learn, Callum attempts to ignore the abuse he gets from the Crosses, but it becomes too much to bear and Callum begrudgingly decides to leave. One of the biggest forces within the novel is the Liberation Militia, which is a terrorist organisation set up and run by Noughts. This organisation sadly weaves its way into Callum’s family and brings more tragedy into their world. In response to a family death, his brother and father, Jude and Ryan, are accused of setting off a bomb in a local shopping centre. Meanwhile, Sephy is battling her own personal demons with drink and feels she needs to get away in order to fully recover. She persuades her mother to let her go to boarding school, and leaves a letter for Callum to meet her if he still wishes to be with her. However, Callum does not see this in time.
It becomes a turning point in Sephy and Callum’s relationship, and they do not see each other for many years. The circumstances as to how they meet again are tragic, but this is perhaps my favourite part of the novel. Whilst their relationship is explored through these life changing events, it is the moments of quiet intensity between them which are particularly evocative. Even though society and prejudices have tarnished both their lives, their love for one another and hope for equality is inspiring.
I have read this novel over 20 times (maybe more), and each time I finish Noughts and Crosses my heart aches. I cannot recommend this novel enough. It has become one of the most seminal novels of the YA genre and a review really cannot capture the skillful complexity, yet simplicity of this novel. All I have to say is get ready to never put this book down.
Pssst…There is a graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses being released on 2nd July which I will also be reviewing.