A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
To an adult reader, the plot of this book is clear. During World War II nine-year-old Bruno and his older sister Gretel – the Hopeless Case, as Bruno calls her – have to leave Berlin with their parents. Not for their safety but because their father has been given a new position by the “Fury.” He is to become the new commandant of “Out-With.” When the family arrive at “Out-With” Bruno is horrified. They have left their lovely home in Berlin, Bruno’s three best-friends-for-life and his grandparents for this dismal place? But his attention is snagged by the view from his bedroom window. From there he can see a fence and on the other side, hundreds of men – all wearing the same grey striped pyjamas.
Bruno is an inquisitive and adventurous little boy who wishes to be an explorer when he grows up so it’s not long before he sets off to do just that. This is when he meets a boy sitting on the other side of the fence. Lonely, with only a sharp and condescending older sister for company, Bruno strikes up conversation with the boy, Shmuel, and a friendship develops.
As an adult reading this book, you know what is really happening in Bruno’s life, but Boyne cleverly constructs the book so that a child reader is not put off by the strange words that even Bruno struggles with. The true horror of what is going on is not obvious unless you know the history of this period. However, this is not a book for children of Bruno’s age. It’s a book that will raise very tricky questions for the parent of the child reading it, particularly about the ending. You are bound to be asked what exactly happened at the end.
I cannot praise Boyne’s writing enough. It is a simple enough book for a child to read, but compelling enough for an adult to enjoy. As soon as I finished the book I passed it to my grandmother, who would have been a couple of years older than Bruno during the war and spent most of her time evacuated to Wales. I should point out that my grandmother is not a voracious reader, but she finished this book in three evenings. I even caught her reading it over an afternoon cup of tea. The simplicity of the language is wonderful, but I bet it was not so simple to write.
This book deals with events from a child’s perspective, so nothing that occurs between the adults is ever as clearly stated as it might been from an adult point-of-view. But there is enough to know what is going on, again I cannot praise Boyne highly enough for achieving this.
Despite the fact that Bruno does not understand what is going on around him, the book still manages to chill any reader who has even a cursory knowledge of WWII concentration camps. Gretel, nearly thirteen and infatuated with the young Lieutenant Kothler, begins to take on the political ideas of her father and her tutor. This is horrifying to watch, stunning to see how simply someone can take on these beliefs instead of challenging them. But Bruno only sees Gretel behaving like a silly girl, a Hopeless Case playing up to Lieutenant Kothler, whom Bruno loathes.
One particular scene that stuck out for me was when Bruno remembers the night in Berlin when his grandparents came to celebrate his father’s promotion. His total incomprehension is endearing and understandable, but his grandmother’s disappointment in her son – Bruno’s father – is clear and cutting.
But Bruno is no paragon of virtue. He does things he shouldn’t, lies when he ought to tell the truth and eats without realising how lucky he is to have food. But he’s an engaging young boy, with an inquisitive mind – even if he fails time and again to ask the right questions.
This is a book that I would highly recommend to adults. It’s a gripping depiction of the extremes of politics through innocent eyes. I would also suggest that if you intend to give this to your children that you read it first. For all the simplicity of language and the careful way Boyne does not reveal too much, there is a harsh and heart-breaking story being told here.
David Fickling Books, 2010. ISBN-10: 1849920435. 224pp.
[Nikki is often floored by really incredible books.]