Interview with Malorie Blackman at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2011.
Callum and Sephy have been best friends ever since they were small children. Callum is a light-skinned Nought, poor, underprivileged, living in a small house with his parents and elder brother and sister. Sephy is a dark-skinned Cross, the daughter of a wealthy politician, living in an enormous mansion with her parents and sister. Their mothers were friends once, yet now they’re not supposed to see each other, and so for the last few years, Sephy and Callum have been meeting in secret.
Now Callum has won a place at Sephy’s school, with a few other Noughts, and Sephy is delighted. She doesn’t understand why Callum might be nervous, why he gets angry when she talks to him in public, even when she gets in trouble. Callum is worried, not only because the other Noughts at school are dropping out, but because his brother might be getting involved with terrorists. Will Callum and Sephy ever understand each other? Will they even survive long enough to be happy?
The first thing I have to say about Noughts & Crosses is that it’s definitely a thriller. I was gripped right from the start and I barely put it down in the couple of days it took me to read it, but then it took me several more days to recover from the ending, I was so shaken and generally depressed by it. Needless to say, if you like uplifting reads, this might not be for you. If you like to be absorbed by a book and to spend time figuring out how you feel about the characters and their choices, then I think you should pick up Noughts & Crosses.
Being a thriller, it’s fairly light on the description, but we still get to know the two central characters well as they narrate alternating chapters. Most of the other characters remain quite enigmatic, but I don’t think that’s a problem. Sephy and Callum are children/teenagers so their parents, siblings, and teachers wouldn’t explain things to them all the time, or talk to them about what’s troubling them.
I really liked that the differences between Sephy and Callum weren’t as simple as one being a rich Cross, and the other being a poor Nought. Although Sephy is immature and spoilt, like everyone assumes she is, her parents marriage is falling apart, and she isn’t close to any of her family members. Callum, on the other hand, starts off as a member of a tight-knit family group, and it’s his family loyalties that lead him to make bad decisions.
The one thing that bothered me about Noughts & Crosses is that the culture is exactly the same as our present one in the UK. An alternate history was hinted at a few times, to explain why Crosses were dominant. In this history, Africans, rather than Europeans, had spread out across the world, pillaging and colonising, and if this had happened, the unnamed country in Noughts & Crosses probably wouldn’t have the same political system as the UK with the Queen and Prime Minister, people probably wouldn’t be spending pounds, important people probably wouldn’t wear suits, black probably wouldn’t be worn to funerals and so on. Maybe the author thought that flipping black and white was enough of a change and that altering the world of the story too much would alienate readers, and she didn’t want to get bogged down in the details that an alternate history novel would demand, but a few imaginative changes could have made the world much more vivid and interesting for me.
I wouldn’t recommend Noughts & Crosses if you’re looking for a detailed alternate history, but I would recommend it generally to anyone looking for an absorbing read. It’s a novel about racism, seeing things from both sides, the fact that things are far from black and white (expressed beautifully as we see how different characters interpret and react to the same situation), and most interestingly, growing up.
Who grows up the most in the novel? I actually think it’s Sephy, though she’s by far the most immature character for most of the story. Callum only goes so far in maturing, and then he sort of abandons the notion of seeing the world in its true complexity, though he never goes as far as his brother Jude. If you’ve read Noughts & Crosses, what do you think?
Noughts & Crosses is the first in a four-part series of novels. The edition I read also included the short story ‘An Eye for an Eye’, which is set after the events in Noughts & Crosses, but before the sequel, Knife Edge. The other two books are Checkmate and Double Cross.
See also: Get Writing with Malorie Blackman – a video recorded for BBC Blast filmed in one of my local libraries and on the high street! (I got so excited over this, because I am a nerd)