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The Nickel Boys: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020 Paperback – 9 June 2020
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A commanding triumph . . . brilliant and furious . . . a lean, commanding page turner that provides the richest fictional experience of 2019 so far . . . the prose is so loaded with quicksilver wit, it holds you in its thrall. It is a novel that not only succeeds in character, plot and moral argument but lends grace to lives all too easily shattered . . . The compressed fury of Whitehead's writing is what propels the novel forward - he is one of only a handful of writers who is so brilliant you just want to feed him stories. He has a distinctive voice, at once cynical and compassionate, and his wry observations cut to the quick in ways that make other novelists look prissy or too anxious to please. There is barely a paragraph of The Nickel Boys without some felicitous touch ― Sunday Times
[Whitehead] has produced yet another modern classic . . . He's also adept at creating characters of unforgettable flesh-and-blood immediacy, with even the swiftest pen portrait conveying the full weight of a lived history. Quietly and purposefully heartbreaking in its portrayal of the lifelong legacy of abuse, it is quite outstanding -- Stephanie Cross ― Daily Mail
Forceful and tightly wrought . . . 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 ― Guardian
If greatness is excellence sustained over time, then without question, Whitehead is one of the greatest of his generation. In fact, figuring his age, acclaim, productivity and consistency, he is one of the greatest American writers alive ― Time
There's hardly a spare word in this book . . . 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 ― Evening Standard
A furious, compassionate novel whose final sleight of hand will twist deep in your gut -- Claire Allfree ― Metro
A masterful piece of very human storytelling -- Nikesh Shukla ― i
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 -- Tim Adams ― Observer
Whitehead renders a terrifying world in disarming terms, lovingly guiding his reader to recognize the lasting impact of a cruel era ― Time
Searing . . . the story is masterfully told -- Duncan White ― Telegraph
if there's a more powerful novel this year, I'd be very surprised ― Reader's Digest
A tense, nervy performance, even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into the water. Every chapter hits its mark ― New York Times
Whitehead wields his mastery over character and narrative in service of dramatising the Jim Crow era to piercing effect, following the lives of two boys sentenced to a brutal reform school in 1960s Florida ― Time magazine (Best books of the decade)
The Nickel Boys is in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King . . . 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 ― Washington Post
Haunting and haunted . . . devastating . . . The book feels like a mission, and it's an essential one . . . he pulls 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 ― New York Times Book Review
[The Nickel Boys] 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 . . . If you have been thinking you should read Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys is the perfect place to start ― Newsweek
The best American novel I read this year was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, a story of courage, cruelty and perversion, set in a Southern reform school in the early 1960s. Not comfortable reading, but compelling -- Allan Massie ― Scotsman
Whitehead's most emotionally resonant novel to date . . . he allows us to feel, and to ache, too ― Times Literary Supplement
What elevates Whitehead's treatment of race and American brutality is the elegance of its style and the satisfying inventiveness of its form ― Spectator
Whitehead lays bare the brutality of recent US history and the legacy its victims carry to the bitter end ― Financial Times
The Nickel Boys lifts the lid on the racist brutality of reform schools in the Jim Crow-era south ― Guardian
A masterful novel . . . will floor you ― Daily Mail
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 ― Boston Globe
Whitehead's brilliant examination of America's history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight ― Publishers Weekly
Spare and unforgettable -- Ann Patchett ― Sunday Telegraph
Tackles a subject more recent than slavery but just as heart-wrenching . . . Based on a true story, The Nickel Boys is a haunting account of young lives whose promise was cut cruelly short ― Daily Mail
As extraordinary as everyone says -- Richard Osman ― Guardian
Heartbreaking, but also very gripping -- Nick Hornby ― Good Housekeeping
- Publisher : Fleet; 1st edition (9 June 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 224 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0708899420
- ISBN-13 : 978-0708899427
- Dimensions : 12.4 x 2 x 19.6 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 16,166 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from Australia
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It was a book you needed to read in bites, as it was too horrifying to read quickly.
Top reviews from other countries
This book starts with an archaeological dig at a now closed boys' reform school. This is a stroke of genius. The period being disinterred is not some ancient native American site nor white settlers' site from centuries ago; it is a mere fifty years old and brings home the proximity of the crime the book goes on to expose to the light.
From the offset The Nickel Boys shows how the Nickel school is a condensed version of America and that the two - school and nation - coexist, each feeding, and feeding on, the same racist poisons as the other. Mr Whitehead has composed an arresting canvas of a "reform" school - no, institution; there is nothing resembling education or reform in the place - run and staffed by sadists with the connivance and sometimes willful ignorance of the " good " local grandees. Corruption by staff and by the beneficiaries of the boys' unpaid labour is rife. The violence is more hinted at than stated so we are left to focus on the moral and societal factors, not distracted by a verbal bloodbath.
Elwood, the central character, is a bright and decent boy of African/American descent sent to this appalling institution for an offence for which he did not have the necessary mens rea - he didn't know the car he was being given a lift in was stolen. Noone cared and Elwood, for his first and only offence is sent to Nickel School for reform. He was and remained a moral, free thinking, philosophical, bright kid who rides out his incarceration and sufferings with moral rectitude and a naiive belief in Martin Luther King's exhortation to love your oppressor. He was let down by his parents, by his lawyer and, eventually by the inspection team sent into Nickel School towards the end of the book.
Even in this appalling place the black inmates are treated worse than the white, reflecting again contemporary American society.
In the closing chapters there is a stunning, moving and wholly convincing turn in the story when… No, I won't spoil it but it will take your breath away.
The American English is sometimes a little difficult to follow, but persist; it is appropriate given the characters and their times and society, and really cannot be dispensed with.
The Nickel Boys is as good a work of literature and social history as anything I've read from an American author. It must, surely, become a classic.
It is a story based on similar institutions that were led in 1960's and 1970's, and I do get that some horrible, horrible things were happening at that kind of 'schools at the time'. I really respect Mr. Whitehead to open the topic to the public and start a discussion about what was really happening in America in those years. But I do miss some feelings in this book. Because I'm an emotional reader and to love a book I have to love it's characters, have to feel their emotions and have to care for their actions. And I just didn't have any of it here. Maybe I am weird, maybe I am cold, I don't know. But for me, it felt more like I'm reading a history manual rather than a historical fiction novel.
The Nickel Boys is an emotive and thought provoking title. The novel is loosely based around a real life true case of systemic abuse at a borstal type facility in 1960s America. Whilst the novel deals with themes of physical/emotional/sexual abuse, it does so in a sensitive manner. Only using scenes of violence to portray the fear within the boys and the complete and utter control their abusers have over them.
The novel is set in 1960s America the fight for civil rights is a backstory within the boys lives. But unfortunately equal rights will not come quick enough for Elwood and Turner. The boys come from very differing backgrounds, although both have known the emotional pain of abandonment and loss. Despite their different out looks on life, they instantly bond at the Nickel Academy. Their friendship will be the only saving grace during their time of detainment.
How do you follow-up a title as powerful as The Underground Railroad? How do you ever emulate a title that has had such global appeal and massive success?
Colson Whitehead has picked a real life part of history and used it to display how institutional racism gives way to abuse and even murder.
Life at the Nickel Academy is one of brutalisation, humiliation and loss of power for the boys detained there. How anyone can ever conceive that this environment would enable young men to make the changes they need, one can never truly know.
What the boys need is love, acceptance and a chance to learn. But there is NONE of that at the Nickel Academy.
I haven’t included any quotes in this review, as the title is only 208 pages. I raced through them at breakneck speed. leaving no time for note taking. Colson Whitehead has an exceptional way with words and there were many opportunities to quote moving passages.
The Nickel Boys is a hard-hitting title which is perfect for book groups, debate and discussion. I have a feeling it will stay with readers for a long time after the closing pages are finally turned!
Literary food for the soul, heart and the brain. 4.5*
Having said that, I found the main character very real; hard to say too much about the plot without revealing the late-on twist, which together with almost everyone else, I didn’t spot. I found it moving and shocking.
Based on the two Pulitzer winners so far, I’ll read Colson Whitehead’ s next book like a shot. He’s getting up there with the American greats.