The Nickel Boys—a tense, nervy performance—is even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. Even if your prose taste runs to curlicue and adornment (mine does), the restraint feels significant. Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves ... while Whitehead is frank about the barbarity his characters endure, there are few scenes of explicit violence—most of it happens offstage. And none of the violence is exaggerated. A reverence for the victims can be detected in this refusal to sensationalize their suffering ... Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here, of a cinder-block building that still stands, a school that was closed only eight years ago. Its starkness and irresolution recalls the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s point that the opposite of forgetting is not merely remembrance. It is justice.
... no mere sequel. Despite its focus on a subsequent chapter of black experience, it’s a surprisingly different kind of novel. The linguistic antics that have long dazzled Whitehead’s readers have been set aside here for a style that feels restrained and transparent. And the plot of The Nickel Boys tolerates no fissures in the fabric of ordinary reality; no surreal intrusions complicate the grim progress of this story. That groundedness in the soil of natural life is, perhaps, an implicit admission that the treatment of African Americans has been so bizarre and grotesque that fantastical enhancements are unnecessary ... Whitehead reveals the clandestine atrocities of Nickel Academy with just enough restraint to keep us in a state of wincing dread. He’s superb at creating synecdoches of pain ... feels like a smaller novel than The Underground Railroad, but it’s ultimately a tougher one, even a meaner one. It’s in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King ... what a deeply troubling novel this is. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.
Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that ... offer[s] an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism ... feel[s] like a mission, and it’s an essential one ... [Whitehead] applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell ... In this writer’s powerful reckoning, those who enable historical amnesia are accessories to the crimes against humanity whose erasure they facilitate ... even leaner than its predecessor and no less devastating ... While Whitehead doesn’t reprise the wholesale magic realism of his previous novel, he does pull off a brilliant sleight-of-hand that elevates the mere act of resurrecting Elwood’s buried story into at once a miracle and a tragedy ... A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.
The body of the novel is a heartbreaking tale of what happens to vulnerable youths at the mercy of a system that lacks imagination and compassion ... Whitehead unflinchingly traps his [character] in inescapable violence ... We think about race in America in glimpses. Multiple lenses are needed to illuminate the long histories of injustice, oppression, and cruelty in this country. The Nickel Boys takes place in the Jim Crow era but has definite resonance now. Its particular look back is like a jazz riff on contemporary inequity. It’s a tale well told about our society’s lack of concern for those who are poor, those lacking caring guardians, those lacking adequate education. The soul-searing indignities and abuses imagined and expertly described in The Nickel Boys still occur in the juvenile justice system, particularly for young people of color. As heartbreaking as The Nickel Boys is, it is sometimes funny. And, importantly, it is beautiful. I hope this profoundly sad but elegant novel causes people with means to grow more curious about kids living with few protections against poverty. I hope they are moved to look carefully at our times and come to better understand the young people sitting in juvie right now, or those who are headed there ... [Whitehead's] novel does a powerful job of telling a story inspired by their experiences, but the real story of the Florida School for Boys/Arthur G. Dozier School was also told by the men who’d really been there, most of whom are still suffering. If their testimony has not yet inspired others to come forward and tell their own stories, it will.
Not a moment is wasted, and for someone who writes as vividly as Whitehead, there’s also a graceful economy here. He uses words carefully, as if he doesn’t want them to get in the way of the truths he’s excavating ... Whitehead evokes the current-day madness of children kept in squalid conditions, of young ones lost in a system that cares nothing about them, and a government more concerned with incarceration than compassion. Whitehead captures how humanity is stripped away ... Whitehead, whose last novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has again found dark inspiration in an overlooked corner of our nation’s history ... If God exists, he had long ago turned his back on such forsaken places. In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead’s novel won’t allow us to do the same to the kids who survived, or those finally freed from an unmarked graveyard that could hold its silence no more.
Mr. Whitehead’s story is fictional in its particulars, but it hews strictly to realism. The author has, for the moment, put away his bag of tricks to stand alone with this grisly chunk of American history ... Without the usual bells and whistles, one better appreciates how good Mr. Whitehead has gotten at the fundamental elements of fiction. The dialogue, the efficient character sketches and the unobtrusive but always-advancing plot are evidence of mature ability. The Nickel Academy may be a 'Perpetual Misery Machine,' as Elwood thinks of it, but the writing voice that depicts it is spry and animated and seamed with dark humor, true to the irrepressible curiosity of its teenage protagonists. A friendship emerges between Elwood and a streetwise Nickel veteran named Jack Turner that is both natural in its development and shrewdly representative of the different ways in which boys respond to the school’s horrors ... Their arguments and shared affection culminate in a dazzling final twist that Mr. Whitehead stages with such casual skill that one only begins to unpack its meanings well after the book has ended ... The excellence of The Nickel Boys carries an added feeling of hope, because it’s evidence of a gradual, old-fashioned artistic progression that fewer and fewer writers are allowed the time to pursue ... the control and craft of The Nickel Boys demonstrate the versatile gifts of a writer who is rounding into mastery. The impression left is that Mr. Whitehead can succeed at any kind of book he takes on. He has made himself one of the finest novelists in America.
It's pretty rare for a writer to produce a novel that wins the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and, then, a scant three years later, bring out another novel that's even more extraordinary ... It's a masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied ... Whitehead's novel is short and intense; its chapters as compact as the isolation cells that Nickel boys are thrown into and sometimes never leave ... You may think you can guess how that effort ends, but you'd only be partially right. The Nickel Boys issues a complex and deeply affecting verdict on whether or not the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice. But my 'verdict,' so to speak, on The Nickel Boys is much more straightforward: It's a great American novel.
Just as The Underground Railroad recalls nineteenth-century escaped-slave narratives, The Nickel Boys contains numerous reminders of Ralph Ellison’s up-from-the-Jim-Crow-South classic, Invisible Man ... Why Whitehead might want The Nickel Boys to remind readers of Invisible Man is a mystery to me. Ellison’s novel is a grand literary epic of the great migration, and his characters therefore often represent large cultural, economic, and political forces. Invisible Man is also a compendium of different styles from Joycean stream of consciousness to vernacular realism. The Nickel Boys is by comparison a much more limited work, its purview narrower and more personal. But the novel has a saving grace—or horror: its historical exactitude ... Whitehead may have chosen his rather diffident style and narrative speed to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, features that sometimes flawed The Underground Railroad. But to me The Nickel Boys is more like the outline of a novel than like the best novels that Whitehead wrote before the success of The Underground Railroad.
... forceful and tightly wrought ... Whitehead has a gift for summarising the essence of a person’s nature in a few lines ... for all the horror, the descriptions of violence are remarkably understated. For the most part this restraint adds to the book’s impact, underlining the detachment with which the violence was enacted. There are other times, though, when Whitehead slides over key moments that would seem to beg for more detail ... Instead of the violence, Whitehead homes in on the way in which every action fits into a fully orchestrated whole, which is why I would wish everyone, black or white, to read this novel. He demonstrates to superb effect how racism in America has long operated as a codified and sanctioned activity intended to enrich one group at the expense of another.
... gripping ... The Nickel Boys is a requiem for the lives and innocence lost. It’s also, in a way, a rejoinder to the cries of 'this isn’t America' that ring out from those in the periphery over incidents of injustice ... Whitehead’s shown himself to be one of the most evocative writers of our time ... His prose here is elegant yet straightforward, which helps get inside the mind of the studious, increasingly disillusioned Elwood. Whitehead punctuates his sentences with fragments that are like poignant asides in his life before Nickel School ... Although The Nickel Boys is a more grounded work than his previous novel, Whitehead loses none of his inventiveness with metaphor ... Many people will undoubtedly find The Nickel Boys eye-opening ... Whitehead’s novel is certainly revelatory, but more for the ways in which it traces these atrocities to the past and present, weaving tragedy into multiple lifetimes. The Nickel Boys isn’t just a testament to systemic racism; it’s an archeology of pain.
With this new novel, Whitehead forces us to contend with a criminal justice system that is more about profit than actual reform ... Whitehead continues to triumph in a literary space of his own invention ... The Nickel Boys is destined to be another Colson Whitehead classic. The terse prose keeps a steady and suspenseful pace, as new forms of systemic harm keep emerging. Whitehead’s new work once again demonstrates his greatest talent: crafting a memorable story in a way that forces America to listen.
At first glance, it would appear that The Nickel Boys eschews the literary tricks of Whitehead’s earlier work for an almost affectless realism ... The New York sections have a loose, easy rhythm, offering consolation after the savagery of Nickel ... Despite its plain speaking, The Nickel Boys is as sophisticated—and as important—as The Underground Railroad, as all the work Whitehead has done in chronicling the original sin of his native land. This is a simple yet breathtaking novel, gathering force to the bitter end, striking the reader in its final pages with a revelatory force.
Whitehead fashions Elwood’s burgeoning political sensibility in crisp, simple prose. As the novel’s lean sentences accrue momentum ... Whitehead can pen both the curse-laden signifying speech and the awkward, knowing silences that web boys into community ... Th[e] final section is beautifully and masterfully constructed. Whitehead offers rich studies of Elwood in the mid-1970s, the late 1980s, and the early 2000s ... The Nickel Boys is a kind of folktale about lost, forgotten children. Whitehead’s narrative binding twists the novel’s plot, creating movement and tension ... Though it’s brief—210 pages long—Whitehead has made a conceptually thick, intense, political book ... From its opening lines through the novel’s elegant, heartbreaking closing, Whitehead’s lucid, sparkling, storytelling incites readers to bear witness for these children (real and imagined), teaches us to speak to survivors and for the dead, and implores us to say their names and demand justice.
In the hands of a writer less talented than Whitehead, this might have been a book too difficult to read. But with discernment and integrity, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares a compelling story that never crosses over into gratuitous detail ... The Nickel Boys offers a provocative tale as Whitehead bears witness to lives that were forgotten and some, no doubt, that were never noticed. But he brings much more to the novel, infusing it with glimpses of hope.
...his story is utterly engrossing, funny, at times, suspenseful, flawlessly constructed, moving, and absolutely brilliant ... Although The Nickel Boys clearly relates the horrors that proliferate at Nickel Academy, the narrative is not that graphic; it is never prurient or cringe-inducing, and yet it exposes, can be shocking, suspenseful, and is completely riveting ... The narrator’s wry tone and direct, crisp prose, much like that of Whitehead’s previous novel The Underground Railroad, perfectly balance entertainment and fabulous storytelling with critique and a pointed indictment of racism, and the justice and education systems in America ... The Nickel Boys is a complex, multi-layered work. It is a suspenseful page-turner and a great story ... exceptional.
... superb ... In Dozier, Whitehead has found a valuable symbol for systemic and persistent racism in America. His narrative is brutal in its '60s scenes, and just as wrenching when the story shifts to years later, as a free and successful Elwood contends with his memories of Nickel ... if The Nickel Boys evokes the monstrous reach of Jim Crow, it also embraces the hopeful spirit of the Civil Rights Movement ... straight-ahead realism, distinguished by its clarity and its open conversation with other black writers: It quotes from or evokes the work of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and more ... Whitehead has made an overt bid to stand in their company – to write a novel that’s memorable, and teachable, for years to come. The Nickel Boys is its fulfillment.
Whitehead’s authority is born not only from historical fact, but from authorial craft. His deliberate, almost stolid, prose lends the horrific events he relates even more weight. The first dark turn in the novel’s narrative approaches so gently that you don’t really notice it until 'the red light of the prowl car' hits you ... Whitehead again illuminates with incredible force the incomprehensible suffering of black Americans. Their freedoms need to follow faster.
... grips us from the very first line ... invoke[s] a Toni Morrison-esque poetic simplicity that speaks to a toxic past that continues to haunt us ... Some believe they can bury the past, but The Nickel Boys reveals the value and pain of such unearthing of our untold histories and our traumatized soil ... Whitehead’s striking language helps us to feel the enduring nature of these boys and their experiences, and these sidelined black teens see that even respectability politics cannot keep them safe when the system is structured to keep them down ... Whitehead’s haunting prose and position as one of our most formidable contemporary writers takes us there and back for a reckoning.
...heartwarming ... Though I admired The Underground Railroad, it didn’t come close to involving my emotions in the way The Nickel Boys has. Where that novel had the heady contrivances of magical realism, this one has the hot breath of a true story. It also has a beautiful, unforgettable young hero who walks right off the page into your heart ... The Nickel Boys has the appealing shape of a classic coming-of-age story ... If you have been thinking you should read Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys is the perfect place to start.
... a thrilling and tragic climax. Since its moral concern is multigenerational anguish, the sense of mourning in The Nickel Boys is subvisceral—not detached, but restrained ... The invocation is Faulknerian, the novel’s pained eye landing where we’d least like it: on ourselves. We are called to remember, 'The past is never dead. It’s not even past.'
The Nickel Boys is a strictly realist work, albeit still ripe with Whitehead’s signature deadpan wit ... It’s possible to read the novel naïvely, as a wrenching exposé of the barbarism of so-called reform schools ... Can he please them while continuing to fascinate those of us who fell in love with his idiosyncrasies two decades ago? It’s intriguing to watch this novelist figuring out how to split the difference, delivering what can pass as a straightforward 'protest novel' of the type he once found uninteresting, while also gratifying his own impulses toward complexity, allusion, and all the other moves of postmodern fiction ... a tighter and neater work [than The Underground Railroad] ... The Nickel Boys often feels like Whitehead’s conversation with both the idealistic forerunners of the civil rights generation and, by implication, the woke youth of today ... rest assured that Colson Whitehead still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
... eases itself back and forth between Elwood’s and Turner’s perspectives with a deceptive seamlessness that belies how fundamental their disagreement is. It’s their debates that power the philosophical heart of the book ... Nickel is a brutal place, but Colson never lets the reader wallow in its brutality ... pointedly straightforward and simple...The argument between Elwood and Turner is so binary as to feel almost didactic in the beginning. The sentences have been sanded down to rhythmic, conversational fragments ... But all that simplicity is just part of Whitehead’s trick. There’s something else going on here, something terrible and heartbreaking, and when Whitehead at last eases it out into the open, he does it so beautifully that, reading, I found myself catching my breath ... s more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are beautifully constructed to begin with. But as beautiful and thoughtful as it is, it never lets you forget that it is built around a true atrocity, around something that should never have happened. It’s a book that rests on top of almost 100 unmarked graves.
From this single boy’s experience, Whitehead shows the racist methods of an entire society in their power to destroy hope ... The novel form allows him to render the individual struggles of these characters in ways that are more evocative ... It is impossible not to feel differently for the Dozier School students after reading The Nickel Boys, and this grants Whitehead’s novel a purpose beyond mere entertainment. The tale reemphasizes the heinous crimes committed against African Americans far too often in this country. Through a reimagining of the facts, Whitehead creates a deeper, more universal truth, which is the noblest of fiction’s many tricks ... Whitehead creates individual portraits that are all the more evocative for their singularity. His focus allows us to fill in the rest of the world with our imaginations. Any real expansion happens one soul at a time.
... a blistering exposé ... a sympathetic but clear-eyed narrative ... Whitehead pulls no punches in telling this heartbreaking story. The Nickel Boys offers optimists an opportunity to be encouraged by how far the United States has come in the past 60 years in addressing racial inequality, but a careful reading of this disquieting novel leaves one with the feeling that we still have much further to go.
... [a] stunning new novel ... Whitehead's description of the brutalities that Elwood and his schoolmates are subjected to are necessarily shocking, and as painful as it is to read about the violence against children, it's somehow even more sickening to read what it does to the young men's psyches. Whitehead writes about the cruelties inflicted by the school's staff with a calm matter-of-factness that actually amplifies the horror; the understated beauty of his writing, combined with the disquieting subject matter, creates a kind of dissonance that chills the reader. Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best ... The Nickel Boys is a beautiful, wrenching act of witness, a painful remembrance of an 'infinite brotherhood of broken boys,' and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whitehead is one of the most gifted novelists in America today.
At the outset, Whitehead’s prose is so dry that one wonders if they are reading a book of nonfiction despite the fact that it carries the word 'novel' on its cover ... as Elwood nears Nickel’s darkest secrets, the novel’s dry tone becomes a lens through which readers can observe the wretched evils of American racism and the genocide of young black boys up close ... Most of this phenomenal prose surfaces during the novel’s third section, which coincidentally contains the book’s strongest structural scaffolding ... finishes as a page-turner ... feels like a spiritual sequel to The Underground Railroad ... One only hopes Whitehead continues to use his prodigious talents to document these national horrors. Societies cannot grow, change, or reconcile without artworks like his.
The Nickel Boys is a chilling, masterful novel that explores the depths of evil and the resilience of the human spirit. Whitehead’s prose is dazzling, and the narrative’s nimble twist is a swift kick to the solar plexus.
As in The Underground Railroad, where so many corpses gather around trees like strange fruit, landscape gives silent testimony in The Nickel Boys. Whitehead leads us circuitously through Elwood’s story, going back and forth between the 1960s and the present day to build a mystery that only unfurls at the end, but every detail he gives about the earth and the trees and the buildings is a reminder that all this evidence has been here, all along ... To every reviewer that found The Underground Railroad gratuitous in its violence, unnecessary in its portrayals of flayed flesh and rape, The Nickel Boys offers a riposte: All of this is true. Colson Whitehead is a bard of bygone pain, but this is not 'activist' literature. It is simply the past, whether or not the reader wants to know about it. If the reader turns away, then that says more about them than Whitehead. The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it burns with outrageous truth.
Sometimes you pick up a book that changes the way you see the world ... hard to read — the characters of Elwood Curtis and Turner are so well-drawn, the pacing so exact, the betrayals so heartbreaking ... It is part of the brilliance of this book that Whitehead takes complex, contradictory events and ideas and plants them side by side to create understanding and underscore the complexity of the problems facing us.
The Nickel Boys is Whitehead’s seventh book – and arguably his best yet. He eschews the genre flourishes with which his previous storytelling ventures have been peppered, instead committing to a straightforward realism that allows just the briefest glimmers of hopefulness against a nigh-unrelentingly bleak backdrop ... one of the most emotionally fraught books I’ve read since...well, maybe ever ... So much of Whitehead’s work involves race and how race impacts the American experience. Those themes are explored again in The Nickel Boys, albeit more directly than in past offerings. That directness lends even more heft to the already-meaty discourse he drives ... The slim volume comes in at just 224 pages, yet still overflows with furious poetry and intellectual rawness. It unspools with pacing that feels breakneck while also managing to elicit a sense of stasis; the whole thing practically drips with the frustrations of the societal status quo ... we have to recognize the narrative brilliance that Whitehead brings to the table. There’s a stunning vividity to his language ... Thought-provoking, powerful and shatteringly sad.
Whitehead forces us to contend with a criminal justice system that is more about profit than actual reform ... Whitehead continues to triumph in a literary space of his own invention ... destined to be another Colson Whitehead classic. The terse prose keeps a steady and suspenseful pace, as new forms of systemic harm keep emerging. Whitehead’s new work once again demonstrates his greatest talent: crafting a memorable story in a way that forces America to listen.
...a haunting, haunted book ... The slim volume packs a heart-breaking punch with unexpected twists ... He also writes with his eloquent power, an author who has always been good...but seems to get better with each novel. The Nickel Boys is a book that sticks with readers, a book that tears at the soul, fills a reader with righteous anger and concludes with an almost breathless shock. The feeling lingers like mourning young lives lost, like the snuffing out of potential, youth and dreams.
... a short novel at just over 200 pages, but its quick developments are strengthened by Whitehead's unflinching, matter-of-fact language, which refuses to make a show of racist violence without sparing any of the necessary details. Although it takes place in a different time period and adheres more closely to unadorned realism, the book is a successor of sorts to The Underground Railroad. The two books seem to be part of the same project — that of resurrecting the traditional slave narrative for modern audiences ... Whitehead's work has always been distinctly American because of how it holds the nation's atrocities unsparingly up to the light. The Nickel Boys is no different, and in fact may be the novelist's most straightforward look at institutionalized racism yet. For a writer with an evident gift for genre flourishes, the new novel relies very little on special tricks, instead presenting a very real moment in history for what it is. For that, Elwood, Turner and the others are all the more real, and the violence they face is especially potent. In the third decade of his career, Whitehead is still finding new ways to innovate.
Colson Whitehead once more proves the sheer power of his talent with The Nickel Boys...a heartbreaking, chilling story ... In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead avoids detailed depictions of graphic violence, which makes the story more bearable yet more haunting. He leaves it to the readers to imagine the worst beatings, some resulting in death. This is not a story for the weak stomach or the fainthearted. Nonetheless, this book is so important that it should be read and understood in a primal way so that no one allows a school like this to ever flourish again ... Whitehead can nail a scene, an emotion, and a character in a few sharp words ... Whitehead spares readers too many of the brutal details, but does not spare readers from the impact of such beatings on the psyche of the tortured youths ... As a cautionary tale, Nickel Boys excels. This is a book that should be required reading.
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel arrives with a rare fanfare... His last book, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award ... The Nickel Boys initially appears a less wide-ranging and ambitious work. It’s more straightforwardly realistic and largely focused on a single place closer to the present: a reform school in Sixties Florida, the Nickel Academy, based on the real Dozier School for Boys in Marianna ... But the book’s underlying theme — how the brutality of slavery has seeped into the very soil of America — is equally powerful ... Now on his seventh novel, Whitehead has learned a thing or two about the craft of fiction. There’s hardly a spare word in this book, which though gruelling in a way that’s never gratuitous, is full of life. Whitehead has a talent for creating ambiguous, complex scenes that fix in your memory. The Nickel Boys feels like a necessary fictional project, writing the blank or buried pages of US history; and it’s done with virtuosity.
It requires artistry to write beautifully about children suffering at the hands of evil men, and from the riveting first sentence of his slender new novel The Nickel Boys...Colson Whitehead’s prose unfurls with controlled fury as he reimagines life at what was the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. The fact that Whitehead never raises his authorial voice enhances its wallop ... [a] searing reminder that what happened not long ago, and here, was not unthinkable.
Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, though a work of historical fiction, manages to work on a level that comments on the plight of black men’s lives today ... In this way, The Nickel Boys feels expansive and important ... Whitehead’s prose feels incandescent and controlled, like the steady blue flame of a pilot light ... Whitehead’s writing is distinctively statuesque and pared down, but it is most powerful when savagely tracing familiar institutional negligence toward black lives.
... has a colloquial feel to it, with occasional bursts of eloquence primarily arising from the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and their effect on the young protagonist ... As political statement—The Nickel Boys is a reminder of where we have been and a warning not to go there again, despite the lunacy of our present leadership. As literature,it’s difficult to tell what criteria the Pulitzer committee might choose when it awards its prize for fiction. Often, it seems to favor inventive form over sociological-political substance. Sometimes it’s a combination thereof. Other times it seems the committee’s criteria is anyone’s guess. But Whitehead's novel is poignant, relevant, well-written, and about as perfect as a novel can be. Like The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys is certain to make the Booker Prize longlist. It might even win.
Colson Whitehead once more proves the sheer power of his talent with The Nickel Boys... a heartbreaking, chilling story ... This is not a story for the weak stomach or the fainthearted. Nonetheless, this book is so important that it should be read and understood in a primal way so that no one allows a school like this to ever flourish again ... Whitehead can nail a scene, an emotion, and a character in a few sharp words ... The Nickel Boys might suffer somewhat in comparison to The Underground Railroad, which is as close to a perfect book as has been written this decade. While both books use history to shape the story, The Underground Railroad used magical realism to bolster the story in contrast to the straight-forward, often sparse style in Nickel Boys. Yet with its sharp, direct narratives, Nickel Boys is an excellent book even if it is not quite the perfection of The Underground Railroad. As a cautionary tale, Nickel Boys excels. This is a book that should be required reading.
Lke The Underground Railroad,, The Nickel Boys is a thoroughly unsettling read, a sharp stick that reminds all Americans of the prolonged injustices inflicted upon its African American citizens. Whitehead based the Nickel Academy on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida ... Whitehead employs fiction in important ways. Though The Underground Railroad offers sci-fi inventions (beginning with an actual railroad that ran below the ground’s surface), The Nickel Boys paints a realistic portrait of the Jim Crow-era reform school and the tolerance that allowed it to exist for so long.
... the personal narrative here is so thoroughly connected to the political that Whitehead seems to have created a new paradigm for the roman-a-clef ... The frank brutality of the book is all the more startling when we remember how many real-life victims of racial prejudice have been children ... Whitehead is clearly a natural storyteller. The Nickel Boys unspools itself as effortlessly as a Richard Yates novel and at each point feels as devastatingly real. The language is controlled, laconic and detailed. Whitehead triggers the senses with small verbal cues here and there so that we can almost smell the leather of the Plymouth Elwood is arrested in ... Whitehead also has an uncanny ability to visualise the landscapes that accompany these moments of tension. His naturalism is reminiscent of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, often evoking both horror and beauty in one fell swoop ... a book which can be applied and reapplied because its themes are so thoroughly universal ... when the final turn does come in the book, we are forced once again into confronting the politics of forgetting. Which is why issues such as racial inequality continue to exist. Which is why Whitehead’s writing will continue to endure.
... supersedes The Underground Railroad as Whitehead’s most emotionally resonant novel to date ... a third-person narration that, while it dispenses with jokes, does not put explicit feeling in their place. And this restraint makes the novel all the more moving, encouraging the reader to bring emotion to the proceedings ... And so, two decades after his debut, Whitehead himself emerges as a kind of Intuitionist, proceeding as much by feeling as by intellect. In so doing, he allows us to feel, and to ache, too.
...Colson Whitehead, in this riveting novel, takes us, with laconic economy, to a place of comparable horror, the Nickel Reform School in Florida ... Whitehead is a master of the novelist’s craft, manipulating the time-switches deftly. The depiction of the nightmare school is all the more effective for the restraint with which he writes. This is how it was: let the facts speak for themselves ... I suppose that, given the way things are or seem to be in Trump’s America, this novel is as timely as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was. But, though its subject is America and the perversion of the American Dream into nightmare, it is not only about that. There are comparable horrors elsewhere, and Whitehead is writing about man’s capacity for cruelty and the denial of justice. Yet it would be wrong to read it as a cry of despair. As Elwood’s friend Turner comes at last to recognise: 'it was not enough to survive, you have to live'. That had been Elwood’s message, the message of a quiet boy who held to the hope which was almost a conviction that in the end truth, goodness, love and justice will prevail.
Pulitzer-winner Colson Whitehead’s novel is so steeped in cruelty, injustice and neglect you have sometimes to look away from the page, and pause to draw breath ... The Nickel Boys is...historic, but barely. Indeed, what makes this book so painful, beyond its harrowing plot, is that it is based on real events, and those events are recent ... Whitehead has been criticised by New Yorker critic James Wood for his over-energetic prose. What impresses about The Nickel Boys, however, is his measured tone. It is as if the bare bones of what he writes speak for themselves, and require no emphasis or artificial colour ... There is an airlessness and pitiless momentum to this novel. Whitehead, one feels, has had to rein in his rage and sorrow to allow the story to unfold plainly ... What follows is an account that speaks not just to the appalling treatment of the black boys in the Nickel – modelled on The Florida School for Boys – but highlights sinister parallels with our own age. As recent incidents have shown, in pockets of America there exists a state, at best, of indifference to people of colour, at worst of hostility and racist abuse.
...[a] splendid new novel ... Whitehead’s institution is based on the Dozier School in Florida, but his book is not just a piece of documentary writing. It finds its justification in a marvellous play between the real situation and a novelistic artifice — one which, in the end, proves to be inherent in the human story. This is a perfect example of Marianne Moore’s comparing poetry to imaginary gardens with real toads in them ... Whitehead has embedded the horrible historical episode in what might initially seem the most artificial literary device imaginable, the mistaken-identity plot ... But the genius of the novel is that mistaken identity was simply the condition under which black American men existed in relation to the structures of power ... Along with the plain beauty of his prose, Whitehead’s achievement is in having thought long and hard about the implications of this indifference ... This is a heartbreakingly good novel. Its excellence doesn’t lie in the attitude it takes to a social problem, which may immediately impress prize juries. Rather, this is a book which should last because of the elegant refinement of its treatment, and the harmonious and deeply affecting balance it strikes between real-life conditions, and the requirements of the finest and most penetrating art.
Even in death the boys were trouble.' The first line of Colson Whitehead’s new novel introduces both its fierce vision and the mordant subtlety with which he ambushes his readers ... The Nickel Boys is a simpler story (albeit with a late twist), inspired by a real episode in Marianna, Florida ... Still, in the dialogue between Elwood and Turner it frames some perennial arguments over how to respond to injustice. 'You can change the law,' Turner reckons fatalistically, rejecting his friend’s idealism, 'but you can’t change people and how they treat each other.' Quietly, meanwhile, Mr Whitehead insists that this tragic past is far from dead and buried.
...though the idea of reading a novel that chronicles the degradations inflicted on the children incarcerated at the Nickel Academy might seem difficult, Whitehead has filled his novel’s pages with the humanity of Elwood Curtis and makes readers eager to see him survive ... A lesser writer’s desire to represent the mostly white guards at Nickel as evil incarnate and their charges cherubic in order to drive home the point of the school’s inhumanity would have made for terrible prose. Instead, Whitehead demonstrates how a combination of white supremacy and macho peer pressure predicated on the notion that the toughest guards were the most manly created monsters of average men ... Even in a world of brutal black-and-white views of crime and punishment, Whitehead’s writing forces readers to deal with the ordinariness of most of the characters.
...a tautly focused and gripping portrait of two African American teens during the last vicious years of Jim Crow ... Whitehead’s magnetic characters exemplify stoicism and courage, and each supremely crafted scene smolders and flares with injustice and resistance, building to a staggering revelation. Inspired by an actual school, Whitehead’s potently concentrated drama pinpoints the brutality and insidiousness of Jim Crow racism with compassion and protest.
Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.
A novel of humble length, The Nickel Boys delivers devastating truths through the honesty and precision of Whitehead’s prose. Effortlessly weaving temporal narratives, Whitehead makes clear that even if you survive Nickel, freedom is not guaranteed ... What The Nickel Boys undoubtedly achieves is the voice it provides to a muted chorus of untold truths and histories that are waiting to sing, waiting to be heard.
Whitehead unspools that recent history with a true storyteller’s certainty ... Whitehead’s recreation of this enclosed world, the central section of his novel, is both highly detailed and emotionally exacting ... Whitehead neither sentimentalises nor exaggerates the tale that emerges. He writes with a clear-eyed calm, letting his characters, particularly Elwood, speak for themselves ... Colson Whitehead’s book is not a polemic, but in presenting the unconscionable history of this particular institution, keeping boys in solitary confinement or even burying them 'out the back', he once again builds an allegorical history that resonates in the present.
...a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities ... Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious, if disquieting whole. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.
... possesses even less substance than its predecessor. Its flaws are so glaring that I can’t help wondering if it is time to start administering drugs tests to book reviewers ... Elwood is so inert and self-effacing, in fact, that you have trouble believing in him as a character at all. Rather, he resembles some cipher concocted for a debating school contest over the viability of non-violent resistance ... to make such an unremittingly bleak episode work as a novel, you need some stylistic flair. He instead opts for colourless, clunking prose that at first seems to be evoking the bland, bureaucratic machinery of the prison administration. Over the course of a couple of hundred pages, though, it reminds you of some well-meaning but incompetent attempt to translate a foreign language into English ... Towards the end, a plot twist renders Elwood’s fate even more poignant. By then, though, it is hard to care either way. Given that the novel is based on true events, that is a damning conclusion. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if The Nickel Boys makes a splash, however. If misery memoirs are still good for business, so are novels that paint the African-American experience in the bleakest colours imaginable.