Here Is Why The Book Is A Must Read
'Checkmate’ by Malorie Blackman
Reviewed by Rosalind Way
This is the last book of the Noughts and Crosses trilogy by Blackman, and if you haven’t already read the first two then I seriously suggest you stop reading this and go and read them instead.
I think that these books could easily be considered a must read for all, especially young adults, in a society where it is becoming increasingly easy to be complacent about the issues of racism.
It is difficult to write solely about this one book as the three connect with such fluidity that it feels like just the one, so excuse the references to 'Noughts and Crosses' and 'Knife Edge'.
Checkmate centres on the character of Callie Rose, the mixed race daughter of Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought.
The latter two characters' childhoods and adult lives were detailed in the first two books and, as the outcome, the life of Callie Rose is of great interest to the reader both as a character and as a symbol of the separate parts of society joining.
This is not simply a story of the racism or lack of a clear identity that a mixed race child may face, Blackman is both too intricate for that and well aware that there are deeper issues at hand.
As well as the issues of race, Checkmate also deals with the relationship between mothers and their children, family loyalty and what happens when these relationships become frayed or even dangerous.
The twists and turns in all three of these books would be enough to keep you hooked and distracted from the rest of the world for as long as it takes you to read them, but Blackman does not let you off that easily.
What keeps you talking about the books, handing copies to your friends and colleagues and persuading them to get their children to read them, is the realisation that it could all so easily be the other way round.
Blackman does not need to be explicit in her detailing of the differences between noughts and Crosses: the often lacking capitalisation of the former is enough to remind you of the difference in status between the two.
In fact, in trying to find just one reference as to how Blackman subtly comments upon the features of a black/white person, all I could find were where children remarked about differences in how one's hair hangs flat and limply whilst another has jet black locks.
And that pretty much exemplifies the extent of Blackman's detailing. But it is this distinct absence of a need to highlight the details of society's racism that makes it ever more present.
Most children will pounce upon the differences between people, but more as a matter-of-fact observation: black or white, thin or fat, short or tall, freckles, braces, you name it they'll comment on it.
It is only when they realise that these differences can be used as a form of bullying that they use it as retaliation. Children are not born with the means to know how to bully because of difference, they learn it through a society which uses difference to categorise and segregate.
Difference as a means of deciding what school people can attend, where they're allowed to eat and drink, where they live, who they can talk to...that is far beyond playground teasing.
Yet Blackman is still not that obvious. The reader/society is not condemned outright for the way colour and status are differentiated because colour is not really overtly the issue.
It is more that difference itself is what counts and that any group in society that is different could be subjected to the inferior position in society. Swap racism for sexism or religious orientation and the books would be highly similar.
It would spoil the books to detail what happens, even to comment on various parts, so I will leave it to you to experience the delights of Blackman's plots and the tensions of the characters and how they interrelate. Instead, some final comments on the subjects Blackman brings to your attention.
The 'Noughts and Crosses' trilogy seem to be based in current day, through the language, the technology and such like. However, key elements are different.
Firstly, integrated rather than segregated schools are just beginning in the first book. Secondly, we do not hang criminals.
For me however, rather than disassociating the books from current day, or suggesting that the issues are not as forefront and that we are past such 'bad times', these elements seem to highlight the 'ridiculousness' and barbarity of an unjust society.
Far from that society being in the past, you are able to see how the injustices remain, we just deal with them in a more subtle manner – I wonder which is worse.
The debate on terrorism versus freedom fighters and if violence is ever justified if the cause is ‘good enough’ is yet one more aspect of this book that if read in five, fifty or one hundred years or more will no doubt still be relevant to society.
Again, whether about racism or perhaps religious differences, the books examine the intricacies of the issues and leaves the reader to ponder upon the rights and wrongs.
The characters in the books for me represent all the parts of society, from the extreme to the liberal, the overly confident and the highly confused, the easily manipulated and the downright nasty.
But there is no one character for each, they interchange, mix and vary. The development of characters from childhood to adulthood, or from one part of society to the other, you feel in touch with each of them.
Thus harder still to determine where you stand in the whole issues of racism and prejudice – how can you choose a side if all have a point? That is, surely, the point.
Finally, before you go and re-read the books, or pass them on to others so that at least they can join in on the debates, I feel the need to add a couple of criticisms – sorry.
I did not relate to Callie Rose as much as the other characters in the book and I felt this hindered the defining point of the book – what happens when the different sides of society are forced together.
There were some loose ends within this third book that, rather than merely leaving some things unsaid, I felt were due to Blackman trying to cover too much ground.
The older characters seemed to find some resolution to both their own issues and perhaps some more far-reaching ones, yet the issues that would surely be faced by the younger characters, and no doubt be more complex (?) are left untouched.
But I think that this last issue may be cleverness rather than clumsiness on Blackman's part.
It is too easy to think that by solving in one time our own problems in society those that follow will not face the same things. True they won't, but they will be different, and perhaps more subtle and perhaps even more difficult.
Society may have got rid of public hangings and schools may no longer be so overtly segregated, but have we replaced it with complacency and an ability to pretend that racism no longer exists?
This is an issue that this generation and those to come will need to deal with. Perhaps if we all read Blackman's books we would understand better what we are dealing with.
If roles were reversed would we all behave differently? It would be nice to think that we would, but somehow I think it is not that easy...
Roz Way is The New Black Magazine's literary critic. She is also an academic at Lancaster University.
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