Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

** No Spoiler Included **

It is likely that most people now know what this book is about, due to the film released in 2008.  Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’re likely to have come across the trailers.  Initially, they wanted you to start reading the book without knowing the subject matter (the original synopsis of John Boyne’s book was:

"The story of "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. (Though this isn't a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. We hope you never have to cross such a fence.") 

However, this has now been taken away due to the prevalence of the film.  Therefore, the newest edition of the book features a slightly more detailed synopsis.  However, I am not going to go into detail about the plot of this book.
John Boyne is an Irish author, and although this is his fifth novel, it is his first book written for children.  My initial reaction to this was that given the subject matter, I didn’t think it was particularly appropriate for children.  However, given that the back of the original book states “this isn’t a book for nine-year olds”, I take some comfort from it being written for slightly older children.  Indeed, when I think back to my school days, we were taught about the Holocaust from a relatively young age in secondary school.  John Boyne himself addresses this concern by saying that ‘I do feel that young readers can approach serious subjects like this if the stories are told in the right way and I tried to tell it in the right way’ .  I do agree with this, the story is told from Bruno’s point of view, who at nine years old, is relatively naïve and innocent.  Therefore, although the story is tragic, it is not told in a particularly graphic way that would scar you for life.
It is certainly accessible to younger readers, but because the story is told by a child who doesn’t understand the full extent (if at all) of what is happening around him, I think a prior knowledge of the Holocaust would be needed to really appreciate this book.  Therefore, I’m not entirely convinced that the premise of this book being for younger readers isn’t flawed.  For example, Bruno mistakes Auschwitz for “Out-With” and refers to Hitler as “The Fury”, instead of the Führer.  None of these mistakes are explicitly corrected in the book, and the reader is presumed to be able to work it out themselves.
The book is 216 pages long, and printed in large text.  For me, it was easily readable in one sitting.  It certainly is young-person-friendly.  The narrative is certainly in keeping with being written from a nine year olds perspective, but at points I did find it slightly forced.  In particular, the repetition; I understand this is meant to add to the believability of the story being told by a chid but for me it felt a bit like the author had sat down and thought “now, how do I think like a nine year old”.  I wanted it to flow a little more.
I haven’t seen the film, but did see the trailers which certainly made me realise the film (and book) would be a heart-breaking story.  However, I am disappointed to say that the book didn’t quite live up to expectations for me.  Perhaps because I expected to be a bit more in depth and harrowing, and actually in comparison to these expectations, the book was quite light reading until the last few pages.  (Saying that, I am certainly not making light of the subject).  In my opinion, nothing much really happens throughout the majority of the story (although it wasn’t boring), until the last two chapters – which delivers a pretty strongly impacting twist which did make me gasp! 
However, the book isn’t realistic.  It is totally unfeasible that the son of the Commandant at Auschwitz, having lived at Auschwitz for a year, would never have heard the word Jew.  Bruno doesn’t grasp what is happening in the concentration camp at all, despite his bedroom window overlooking the camp.  Certainly, in reality, a boy of his age growing up in Germany in 1943 would know something about these things; he would certainly be taught to worship Hitler and to have strong negative feelings about Jews.
It certainly isn’t realistic, it has some quite major flaws and it isn’t historically accurate, and therefore if this sort of thing offends you then it’s probably best you give it a miss.  But if you can take it for what it is (and you've avoided the spoilers), it is worth a read if you have a spare couple of hours (even if for those last two chapters alone).  I presume the film is set heavily on the book, and so if you’ve seen the film, I imagine the book doesn’t really add anything!!

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