From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad, this novel (the winner for the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Fiction) follows two black teenage boys—one idealistic, the other skeptical—trying to survive the horrors of a brutal Jim Crow era reform school.
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.