Sephy is a Cross - a member of the dark-skinned ruling class. Callum is a nought - a 'colourless' member of the underclass who were once slaves to the Crosses.
The two have been friends since early childhood. But that's as far as it can go. Against a background of prejudice, distrust and mounting terrorist violence, a romance builds between Sephy and Callum - a romance that is to lead both of them into terrible danger...
I can count on one hand, the number of books that have left me feeling as speechless and tumultuous as Noughts and Crosses has.
The novel is set in an alternate world where Pangaea remained intact. Due to a bunch of reasons, the Africans had the upper hand and took over the Europeans, making them their slaves. It's basically like pre-Civil War America, only with the blacks dominant over the whites, instead of the other way round. The language in this book is very simplistic, which allowed me to focus on the characters, and more importantly, on this alternate world Blackman created, and the questions she posed through her story.
This novel isn't easy. It isn't happy. It's a brutally honest one. Never, for even one scene does the author let the reader forget the racial differences and social disparities between the Noughts and Crosses. It is evident in the conversations between Sephy and Callum, in Callum's account of his school days, in Sephy's and Callum's broken families, in pretty much every plot point. It introduced me to the simple, grim truth of what the world was before the protests against racism. The 'Noughts' were denied every privilege by society. Their hospitals and schools are separate, they are not allowed to contest public office, and are forced to do menial labour. They are the 'colorless' ones, the unnatural ones.
The brilliance of the novel lies in this alternate history. It gives a fresh perspective on racism and racial discrimination. The book tells a harshly realistic story of human nature, of the consequences of oppression, of retaliation, of loss and love, and the innate struggle of the characters to decide where their loyalties lay.
But the book is about more than inequality. It is also the story of Callum's and Sephy's efforts to reconcile their class with their love for each other. Both of them fight their own wars, with their family members, with society, with their comrades, with themselves in their struggle to navigate their feelings for each other, and the conspicuous difference in their class. These two characters were very much their own persons. They fiercely loved each other, but were never ruled by that love.
As they transition from children to teenagers, the cruelty and harshness of their world seeps into their relationship. It tore me to see their relationship battered and tested again and again with every fresh development. It was brutal to see their world tear at their loyalty towards each other. Every relationship changes and develops over time. It's just that Callum's and Sephy's changed not just because of their age, but because of unjust things completely beyond their control. Over the course of the novel, they both grew in their own way, independent of each other, but sort of shaped by their loyalty for each other-- and I loved that. It was so realistic and believable and breathtaking, to watch little changes take place in their personality over time, to watch their relationship unfold from platonic, to awkward, to uncertain, to passionate.
I did have serious quibbles with the writing style (the overuse of exclamation marks in particular), and a few of the secondary characters. Despite all that, I was engrossed with the book from the beginning till the end.
This book was disturbing and depressing. It was brutal, and tragic, and mind-numbing. Read it.