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"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" is the story of Bruno, a nine year old whose life is turned upside down when he returns home from school one afternoon to find the family maid hurriedly packing his clothes. He learns that the family - Bruno, his mother, his "hopeless case" twelve-year old sister and his father are leaving Berlin and moving to a place he knows only as "Out-With" for what is described as "the foreseeable future".
When Bruno realises that "foreseeable future" means more than the few weeks he had imagined, he does what all nine year old boys like to do; he starts to explore and in doing so he meets another nine year old remarkably similar. The boy, however, is on the other side of a fence.....
I have read reviews that mention that some versions of this book are deliberately vague about the story between the covers but I bought the paperback version that shows a section of a photograph of a child wearing a pair of pyjamas made from a coarse striped cloth. If you know anything about
the holocaust and the Second World War, it will be instantly recognisable and so the paperback version I bought is much less mysterious.
The story is told from the point of view of Bruno, though in the third person. Bruno is a typical nine-year old boy, curious, adventurous and usually at odds with his older sister. Gretel is a typical twelve year old girl torn between girlish pursuits and wanting to appear grown up. Both children are unaware of what is going on around them , partly because they are protected from the truth, but partly because they have led quite privileged lives and have never much thought about others.
The book was originally written for children but it has proved a massive hit with adults. I really think that much of the detail of the book will be lost to younger readers who know nothing about the holocaust. Then again, I found that a familiarity with the truth flagged up lots of inconsistencies and faults in the story.
The biggest problem for me was the way the author made almost coy reference to people and places by using substitute names for them: the names that are used are supposed to be those a nine-year old has misheard so Bruno explains that is was a visit from "the Fury" that was the catalyst for the family move to "Out-With". The problem is that these details work in English but would not in German.
More difficult to believe, though, is Bruno's naivety. While I understand that many Germans had no idea of the atrocities committed in concentration camps, the son of an army officer would have probably been a member of the Hitler Youth junior section and would have known about the concept of the "Fatherland".
Unless you know something about what went on inside the concentration camps, the dramatic impact of the conclusion will be lost and the book continually fluctuates between flawed details and lost chances.
There are some positives, though. I especially admired Boyne's success at very quickly and economically giving a quite detailed portrait of a family. While I thought that there were big problems with Bruno's character, the family dynamics are demonstrated in a subtle way was which raised it above the level of children’s' story and provided something for adults to get their teeth into.
The inaccuracies aside, John Boyne has certainly created a book that bounds along at a good pace and is well-crafted enough to provide some surprises. I thought I knew what was coming but I was very wrong: I cannot think of any other book I have had in recent years that has shocked and moved me so dramatically.
If my three star rating seems harsh, it should no be regarded as such. "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" is a good book and the writing is excellent. However, I just couldn't work out who exactly it is aimed at. Anyone who has a good knowledge of the period will spot the flaws immediately; it is too subtle in some aspects for young people who have not learned about the holocaust at school (though it certainly does refer to some of the horrors indirectly). As a historical source it is badly flawed but it may be of use in provoking discussion and making young people think about how they treat the people they live alongside.