Crossed swords

Noughts and Crosses

Malorie Blackman <em>Doubleday, 446pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0385600089

This book has a simple but brilliant premise: what if our world were inverted like a photo-negative, so that black people were the dominant majority and whites the oppressed minority? In Pangea, this is what has happened. White, or Nought people, are called (abusively) "blanks", told they are stupid and ugly, denied proper education and rights. Black people are Crosses, and have all the money, self-confidence and power. When a white person gets a cut, the plaster is brown.

Callum's mother is a Nought who works as a maid for Sephy's Cross parents until she is fired. The two children remain best friends in secret, and eventually fall in love. Three years later, Callum wins a rare place at Sephy's school, only to be confronted by violent racism. When Sephy attempts to defend and openly befriend him, she, too, gets beaten up.

"Why d'you want to be around them anyway?" asks one friend. "They smell funny and they eat peculiar foods and everyone knows that none of them are keen to make friends with soap and water."

Unable to bear the injustices of their world, Callum and his father take up arms against it. There are few grey areas. Sephy's father is a powerful politician, and a bully. When she becomes pregnant by her beloved, her father offers her a dreadful choice: Callum's life in exchange for an abortion. As you might guess, there is no happy way out.

A tremendous anger sears through Malorie Blackman's novel, not always to its best advantage as a work of art. The society it describes is closer to South Africa during apartheid than to our own: the racism it describes is so overwhelming, so unthinking, that it makes you step back from making direct parallels. A more Orwellian artist would have made the society closer to modern Britain (or America) in its seeming tolerance and token acceptance. Yet it is easy to forget just how familiar Blackman's world might seem to a black reader. The African-American scientists, inventors and pioneers mentioned in one of Callum's history classes turn out to be real. One never learns about them. Details such as this shake you, in the way of the best dystopian fantasy.

There are flaws. The white family sounds like a black one. The novel is told in alternate voices, with stretches of dialogue that make it seem more like a screenplay than a novel, and the characters are archetypes rather than particular, individuated people. In the end, it doesn't matter, because the story is so gripping and the world of Pangea so nightmarishly vivid. Blackman is a children's author who has never before, until this novel, made a feature of race. Like the infinitely fashionable Zadie Smith, Blackman found a wider audience by refusing to write solely for a minority. Here, there is no escaping race. And, given recent horrors, it feels that Noughts and Crosses has burst out of the zeitgeist with all the power and passion that Smith's White Teeth lacks.

Callum, dreaming of living in a world with no more discrimination, asks his friend Jack if he has ever imagined what it would be like if their positions were reversed. "People are people," Jack tells him. "We'll always find a way to mess up, doesn't matter who's in charge."

It is a measure of Blackman's gift, and her confidence, that she manages to make us see this double inversion, and feel the gen- erosity of spirit that inspires us to move beyond anger. Her novel is a tour de force, a remarkable feat of the imagination, and the most interesting and important fiction of its kind that I have read for years.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose