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Book review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys was the first audiobook that I have read, and it did nothing to discourage me from enjoying books in this form in the future.

Read by author Colson Whitehead and JD Jackson, it is the story of a boys’ remand home where the remains of boys were found buried in a nearby field.

When Elwood was sent there after being found in the wrong place at the wrong time, he had no idea what to expect and at first was relieved to see boys playing football.

However, it was not long before he was introduced to a darker side of Nickel Academy, where beatings were vicious and disappearances were not questioned.

The idealistic Elwood resolves to keep his head down until he graduates from the home, until he finds that he can not ignore the words of Martin Luther King that he heard before he arrived. With the memory of Luther King’s powerful words in his mind and a strong sense of right and wrong, Elwood is alive to the injustices he sees around him, from the separate living spaces for the black and white boys to the punishments meted out as brutally to the bullied as to the bullies.

He discovers that he cannot stay silent to the wrongs he sees, just as in his past he couldn’t look away when local boys stole from the newsagency where he worked. This incident, and the ones that followed, revealed that the world wasn’t always right or fair – a truth by which Elwood refused to abide.

The Nickel Boys has a grim humour, despite its depths of pain and sadness. Terribly sad endings for some boys are presented, and the narrator abruptly moves on. They are events that are not laboured, but that makes them no less disturbing.

The voices of the narrators enhanced the story, fleshing out the voices of the boys of Nickel.

It is a harsh discovery at the end to find that the story was inspired by true events, although the characters throughout are fictional. It is not hard to see that the experiences of those who appeared in the book are likely to have been mirrored in the lives of those who lay buried in the field of another remand home, and possibly, others like it.

This novel is more subdued that the writer’s previous award winning work, The Underground Railroad, although both visit dark points in America’s history. But in its quiet way, it is haunting, and the boys who find themselves at the mercy of those who run Nickel Academy will be difficult to forget.

The Nickel Boys is available at Booktopia. (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

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