The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, written by John Boyne, has both its hits and its misses, but manages to convey important messages to its readers.

The story follows German boy Bruno and his family; his older sister, his mother and his father, who it turns out, is one of the most important men in the Nazi regime.  We are introduced to Bruno and his family when they are relocated to live next to ‘Out-With’ (Auschwitz), where his father is the Commander.  Although Bruno and his sister don’t have any idea what is going on, Bruno is unhappy to be stuck far away from any of his friends or family, and as a result he is bored and lonely.

One day, while walking along the fence that separates him from all the prisoners of Auschwitz, he comes across a young boy, Shmuel, on the other side of the fence, and they begin an unlikely friendship, neither of them understanding what is going on in the war, or the consequences it eventually has on both of them.

For quite a while, I’ve been interested in reading this book.  I heard about the ending from a friend who watched the film adaptation (if memory serves she said something along the lines of “My mum and I thought it was going to be this lovely film about two boys hanging out together and then BAM, NAZIS!”, but again, I could be slightly paraphrasing) and my interest was piqued.  I’m sure it doesn’t say anything too positive about my overall personality, but I’ve always been fascinated by Nazi Germany, particularly fiction books that look at that horrific era from different perspectives.  In the past I’ve written about Bernard Schlink’s beautiful novel, The Reader, which examines the guilt that post-Nazi Germany endured, and I’ve mentioned Marcus Zusack’s The Book Thief, an interesting novel that is narrated from the perspective of death (because, quite frankly, it was a busy time for death then).

So, in short, I was curious as to how Boyne would tackle this sensitive and overwhelming topic.  Especially since, as I discovered when I went to the bookstore and was quickly re-directed, it was a novel written for young adults, even children.  Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes I think kids can deal with reading about war and battles unbiasedly in a way that adults cannot.  I first read The Tomorrow Series when I was about 12, and while I felt sad when main characters died, I wasn’t afraid or really all that horrified.  However, after revisiting the series as an adult when the first movie came out a few years ago, I was downright outraged over the idea of Australia being invaded.  So overall, this didn’t deter me from the storyline, or what Boyne could bring to the table.

Furthermore, I had heard such good things about this novel.  A fresh and innocent look on a bloody time.  A friendship that withstands cultural, metaphorical and, quite literally, physical barriers.  A child’s opinion on who was considered one of the most powerful, terrifying and ruthless men to ever lead.  So, I had high expectations.

I really need to stop having high expectations about books and films.  It just leads to a sense of ‘meh’, ennui one may call it (or not, if you are not french, and do not have that annoying habit of pretending to be french).  And that’s pretty much how I felt about this book.

In its defence it was written for someone quite literally half my age.  That’s fair.  But at the same time, only recently I’ve picked up kids books and been able to become immersed in the storyline and resonate with the characters, all because of fantastic writing.  And this is something that most people could agree with at some point.  Harry Potter anyone?  Yet I found Boyne’s writing over-simplified and often repeated, in a way that I’m sure is meant to come across charming, but just made me feel all the more distant from the main character, Bruno.  I haven’t read any of his other novels, so it may very well be his writing style, but The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was a little too simple, and I felt that more credit was due to his intended audience (i.e. not me).

Secondly, while I believe that Boyne had good intentions of portraying both the innocent, and the complete unbiasedness, that children have, for me it routinely came across as cliche, and improbable.  While some writers do it superbly, for example the friendship between Huckleberry Finn and Jim (although it’s probably a bit unfair to compare anyone to Mark Twain) I felt that Boyne’s depiction of the relationship between Bruno and Shmuel wasn’t one of them.  Why I think this, I can’t say for certain.  Perhaps because it is in retrospect, and so all of us sitting comfortable 70 years on can say we’d be just as innocent and accepting as Bruno. Or maybe it’s because we believe that no one, Polish, Jewish, German or otherwise, should live in those conditions.  Or perhaps simply the idea has just been done too many times before; children, who have so much to learn about life, are often far better people than us adults.  Whatever the reason, Boyne’s attempt to showcase war from a child’s perspective was sadly lost on me.

Overall, while I enjoyed this book on a certain level, I felt that it didn’t reach the expectations that I had for it, or the potential that it suggested.  While Nazi Germany continues to fascinate me, sadly many other novels I’ve read were far superior to The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

Have you read or seen The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas?  What did you think?  Let me know!

the boy in the striped pyjamas by john boyne

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – (image taken from http://www.worldofstories.co.uk)

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