Oh good heavens. As you know, I’ve wanted to read more John Boyne and, when looking for something short to read between longer books, I spotted this. ‘Yes,’ I said to myself, ‘I know what it’s about. It won’t be fun, I know that. But everyone says how important it is. And besides. It’s a children’s book. It can’t be that bad.’ A day later, I was staring in disbelief at the final page, wondering how on earth I could ever explain this book to my non-existent children and feeling as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.
Bruno is nine years old when his family suddenly have to pack up all their things and move away from Berlin. Father has a very important job and has been given a special task somewhere else by the Fury, the little man who runs the country. Bruno tries to point out why this is a bad idea – he will have to leave school; they will be going away from his grandparents; what about his three best friends? – but none of the grown-ups listen to him. And so, resentfully, Bruno arrives at the new house, which has little to recommend it. Mother is unhappy. He has no one to play with except his big sister Gretel, who is a Hopeless Case and would rather spend her time rearranging her dolls than talking to him. Father seems more important than ever, and the house is always full of soldiers, including the nasty Lieutenant Kotler, who treats Bruno like a little boy.
Suddenly there are lots of things that Bruno simply doesn’t understand. Why is there a very high and long fence outside his bedroom window? Why are there so many people behind the fence and so few on this side? And why are all the people over there wearing striped pyjamas? But Bruno is an explorer. He believes in seeking out knowledge and so, one day, he sets off on an expedition without telling any of the grown-ups what he’s up to. And, on his quest, he discovers something remarkable: a little boy called Shmuel, who is exactly the same age as Bruno, who lives on the other side of the fence, and who wears a pair of those curious pyjamas. Cautiously, the two boys become friends through a deserted corner of the fence, trying to understand what truly separates them.
Having only read Boyne’s adult books before, I was charmed by his ability to capture a child’s inner voice and thought process. Bruno is simultaneously very grown-up for his age and almost unbearably innocent. He feels like the hero of a typical boy’s adventure story: plucky, honourable (to an extent) and inquisitive. Boyne plays a clever double-layered game throughout the book, with Bruno’s misspellings helping to reveal the horror gradually: the Fury; the name of the new house, at Out-With; and so on. And then, having lulled you into a false sense of security, having encouraged you to believe in the power of human kindness with the care of someone building a house from cards, Boyne simply knocks it all down. Does it count as a spoiler, I wonder, to say that the final chapters are utterly crushing? I had to reread them to make sure that I’d understood what he was doing and then I sat and gaped like a guppy for a while, trying to decide whether I admired or hated him for daring to round it off that way.
I think this is a wonderful little book and it is probably a perfect way to start introducing younger readers to the horrors of our recent past. It’s a novel that demands discussion and conversation. But I’ve no idea what the appropriate age bracket would be. For much of the book, I thought that you could get away with reading it to fairly small children, as a way of laying the foundations of understanding; but with the ending, I’m just not so sure any more. And, as I said at the beginning, how on earth would one find a gentle and kind way of explaining to a child what happens? Has anyone read this to children or grandchildren? How did you go about it? And how did your young readers react? Have you seen the film, perhaps? How does that compare?
Has anyone read any of Boyne’s other books for children? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is his most famous, but should I seek out any of the others on their own merits?