I'd come across this book by John Boyne several times while browsing the book shop at the train station. The back was rather fascinating. It said, more or less: this is a book about the journey of a nine-year-old boy. One day he arrives at a fence. Just hope you never have to cross such a fence. That's it. Quite interesting, no? I wasn't however fascinated enough to buy it, until I encountered this book again in a buy 3 pay for 2 action. So, together with Wintersmith and Brick Lane, I bought it.
Warning: plenty of spoilers ahead! If you plan on reading it, better stop here or I will ruin it for you.
I felt disappointed after a page or three. If I'd realised it was a children's book earlier (although it says on the back that it's not a story for nine year olds), perhaps that would have helped. But after three pages I 'got' what the story was about and had a pretty good idea about how it would end.
You see, the book is about a boy called Bruno who lives in Berlin. His parents are very strict. He's not quite sure what it is his father does for a living, but what he does know is that it involves wearing splendid uniforms. One day, Bruno comes to his room and finds the maid there, who is busy packing his stuff. The family is moving, because Father has a new job. He has been chosen for this very important job by an extremely important man called The Fury.
Are you getting it yet? I suddenly made the link with the fence and the striped pyjamas and just knew where it was the family would be moving. Then again, if you're reading this, you can't see the cover of the book with its distinctive greyish-blue stripes, so perhaps it's not all that clear yet.
The family moves to a place called “Out With”, into a house where there’s nothing to do for Bruno and his sister. From the window of his room, Bruno can see a fence. On the other side of the fence there are people that nobody in the house seems to want to talk about. They all wear the same striped pyjamas and matching cloth caps, and they seem to do nothing much except stand around and look sad. Looking at these people makes Bruno feel sad too, and uncomfortable, but he isn’t quite sure why.
After some weeks, Bruno is bored enough that he decides to go exploring like he used to do at home, even though it has been strictly forbidden him. He walks along the fence and meets a boy who lives on the other side. The boy is called Shmuel and wears a striped pyjama like all the others on that side of the fence. They get to talking and find out they have the same birthday! A friendship develops that Bruno keeps hidden from his family.
I won’t say how the book ends, because I don’t want to completely spoil it all for those who might still want to read it. I’ll just say that the end was something of a surprise to me after all (although someone on Amazon says that s/he saw it coming).
My main problem with this book is that I can’t work out who it’s meant for. For adults, the nine-year-old point of view gives some poignancy to scenes that have been described in much more detail in many other places, but the clumsy way of keeping the true names of people and places hidden seems too artificial to me. Also, Bruno seems pretty dense at times, although perhaps I overestimate what a nine year old boy would understand.
According to online book shops this is a book for children or young adults. Apparently it is meant as a careful way of describing the horrors of the Holocaust to children. I wonder if it would serve this purpose. Although Shmuel does say he is Jewish, and so are all the other people on his side, there is no explanation of what this means or how this has to do with the fence. This is logical, because the boys themselves don’t know, but would a child reading this book gain more understanding of what happened? In much the same way some allusions are made to the cruelty of the soldiers at Out With, but nowhere is there any clear description of what is going on. I understand that children should not read about the awful details of the happenings in concentration camps in general and Auschwitz in particular, but I do wonder if this book is understandable if you don’t have any prior knowledge.
In short, it was a nice read, but it seemed too predictable for an adult book and too vague for a children’s book.
If anyone else has read it, I would love to know what you think.