2 Aug 2009

Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

I decided to use some money I made from a recent short story sale to buy a handful of books. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was one of them. That title, the setting, and the dark subject matter seduced me.

The family of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a German officer, move out of their Berlin home into "Out-With," a place where the people who live on the other side of the fence are all thin and sad and wear the same striped pyjamas. Bruno befriends one of these people, a boy the same age as him, and begins a doomed friendship.

I'm very confused as to what the target audience is for this book. It has sold around 5 million copies I believe, so it has an audience – but who does this audience consist of? Children? I don't believe so, because so much of the novel's power relies on subtlety and knowledge of What Went On In The Camps, two things I suspect would go over the heads of most children and young adults. On the other hand, if it's supposed to be adult fiction it is deeply flawed and at times unbelievable. Few if any children ever made it into the concentration camps because they were of little use to the Germans (being essentially non-productive). They were sent straight to the gas chambers within minutes of stepping from the train. And the fences surrounding such camps were electrified (they are not here). These two historical facts are conveniently ignored by the author for the sake of his story. But when we're talking about history, about something like the Final Solution and genocide, should writers be taking such liberties? In addition to being written from a child's perspective, the author seems to have adopted a childlike disregard of the facts. Some have found this offensive. I can see both sides of the debate. Back to the story.

I managed to put such gripes aside and approached The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a piece of fiction (albeit aimed at a hard-to-pin-down demographic). So, is it any good? Yes. And no. Inaccuracies aside, the plot is interesting if at times predictable. Characters are presented as stereotypes (as a nine-year-old might perceive them) which in turn makes them a little tiresome and lacking in depth. For instance, Bruno's sister, Gretel, collects dolls and is a rotten sibling. That's it. Bruno himself is at times likeable and sympathetic while at other times annoyingly dense and unperceptive. And I was confused about the narrator. Who was he or she? "And that's the end of the story about Bruno and his family" read one line. Who was telling the story? Wouldn't it have worked better in First Person? To have it relayed through the eyes of the boy? Frustrating.

That said, there is much to like and admire: the voice and style, the simple direct prose, the dialogue, most of the interactions between Bruno and his family and Bruno and the Jewish boy, the plot's structure though not its liberties with historical fact, and the pace – it's a fast, fluid read – but like the dark side of human nature itself, there is also much to loathe.


Brian G Ross said...

Sounds like some pretty heavy readin', Mr. Dines, or at least, a heavy subject matter given a little lighter treatment.

Sophie Playle said...

Interesting review. I've been meaning to read that book. Will get round to it eventually. Would like to read it before I see the film.

"And that's the end of the story about Bruno and his family" - urg, I hate that kind of thing in narrative.

Danielle Ferries said...

I thought the movie portrayed the story a lot better than the book. It was a devastatingly sad story though and the book, to me, seemed aimed at a younger audience and I agree most of it would have gone straight over their heads and the rest would have just traumatised them.

Steven J. Dines said...

Brian - that's my problem with this book. The heavy subject matter was only hinted at and never tackled head-on. It just doesn't sit right with me.

Sophie - I'll still watch the movie when I get around to it. Perhaps the faults on the page won't find their way onscreen.

Danielle - I'm sure I'll agree with you about the film being superior. Despite my annoyance with some elements, the end of the book still affected me. That says something about the power of the story, I guess.