Book review – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

I’d been reading some books about writing non-fiction (to try and improve my own writing) and I came across this book, extensively cited as a fine example of the genre. It’s a chunky book that I intended to skim read, with a view to getting an idea about structure and the concept of writing about a personal journey, but I quickly became engrossed in the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, mother of five from Virginia, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-one from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without either her consent or knowledge, the surgeon treating Henrietta took some of her cancer cells and passed them on to a colleague who was trying to find cells which would survive long enough outside the human body to be useful for research. The idea of doing this without the patient’s consent seems shocking to a 21st century reader, but remember this occurred at a time of segregation and ethical concerns and patient rights were concepts not widely considered to be essential elements of medical practice.

Henrietta LacksThis may have been unremarkable and probably happened more than we care to imagine, but for what happened next: Henrietta’s surgeon had noticed how rapidly her cancer cells had grown, but when George Gey, the scientist to whom he had sent the cells, received them, he found that they divided and reproduced at a rapid rate, and, most remarkably, seemed extraordinarily robust outside their host, unlike all other cells he had dealt with. Gey soon forwarded cells to other colleagues working in the field and they too found the ability of these cells to thrive truly remarkable. HeLa (the name given to the cells) was born and they quickly became an essential part of research worldwide into therapies not just for cancer but for polio and HIV to name but a few. It is thought that around 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been cultivated since 1951.

 

Meanwhile, Henrietta, died and left behind a widowed husband and five young children, two still in nappies, who would never have any memory of their late mother, and one with severe disabilities who would later be committed to an institution. They were poor; Day, Henrietta’s husband, tried to scrape together a living for the family as best he could while Henrietta’s sisters helped with the children. The family would know nothing of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells.

Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book first learned about the HeLa cells in a science class, but it was not until several years later, reading a research paper that her interest was truly piqued and she decided to do a little more digging. She tried to get in touch with the family and was at first rebuffed, but she became increasingly fascinated, obsessed even about HeLa, and the woman behind the headlines, and what had happened to her family. Eventually, she built a relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who had been an infant when her mother died, and a woman who had never come to terms with her loss.

This book is not just the story of Henrietta and her family, and her cells, it is the author’s journey of discovery of the truth about medicine and science in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a story about racism and health inequality, about exploitation and greed. The author put years of her life into this book and a glance at the references pages will show you the huge amount of research that went into producing it. It also raises some interesting questions about ethics and consent which may surprise you – you might think the answer to the question “who owns discarded parts of our bodies?” is obvious, but when the complexities of the proposition are explored we see that it is not quite so straightforward.

I expected to skim through this book in a few hours, but I found myself captivated by the story and by the issues it raised. Perhaps there are some bits the author could have left out, but I think it is also pretty clear why she couldn’t!

Recommended, especially if you have any interest in the world of medicine.

Have you ever found yourself becoming engrossed in a book that you didn’t expect?

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Book review – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl

This was the February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a non-fiction book. I’d had some excellent suggestions from others, but when I walked into the bookshop, this slim little volume with the beautifully coloured bird on the front, jumped off the shelf at me. It was only on closer inspection of the cover that I noticed the barbed wire and the unmistakable image of a watch tower in misty monochrome. This book is written by a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered; the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated at the end of January.

2020-02-06 12.42.07Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who is credited with developing one of the most important theories in the field human psychology (logotherapy) since Freud. He was developing his theory before he was captured by the Nazis but his time in the concentration camp enabled him to observe human beings in extreme conditions and further evolve his ideas.

The core idea of logotherapy (if I understand it correctly) is that human beings have a ‘will to meaning’ and that is what enables them to survive even the most shocking brutality. To illustrate his point, Frankl writes in the first part of the book (about two thirds of the total) about his day to day experiences in the camp. We all know how terrible, degrading and dehumanising these were, but I certainly never fail to be shocked when I see or hear of them. Frankl suffered terribly, but he was also fortunate, as a doctor, to be called upon to look after sick inmates, and this enabled him to observe others at their most vulnerable.

It often occurs to me that it was a particular torture to keep those rounded up into the camps alive when the ultimate goal was extermination. Prisoners were used as slave labour and Frankl describes the horrific conditions they were expected to work in, digging up frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures wearing only the standard issue striped pyjamas, shoes which injured their feet, and surviving on a thin broth that was barely more than hot water. Frankl writes that horror was so commonplace and exhaustion so total that people became inured to feelings – being insensible was a necessary protection. Some inmates effectively ‘colluded’ with their captors and became mini foremen, acting as wickedly as the Nazi guards at times, but Frankl is philosophical:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

In the face of absolute degradation, where the prisoner’s life had no value, stripped of all freedoms and autonomy, Frankl observes that the only thing left is ‘spiritual freedom’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a situation. And this fragment, he believes, is enough to give one hope and purpose. He also observed that once this is lost, when a person can no longer see a goal or meaning, their physical life ebbs away.

Very few of us will ever have an experience like that of Dr Frankl or the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, though a few experience extreme privation, imprisonment and torture. Dr Frankl carried his theories into his work with normal people experiencing difficult things in their life. He cites an example of a bereaved colleague, devastated after the death of his wife, who felt that there was no longer any purpose to his life. Only once Dr Frankl was able to show him that his loss meant his wife had been spared the grief of being widowed, was he able to find meaning in his life again and thus move beyond his grief. Frankl is clear though that suffering is not necessary in order to find meaning in life, rather, that even through suffering, meaning can be found.

According to logotherapy we can find meaning in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. Even when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. This for me, was the strongest message that came out of the book – Dr Frankl’s account of his time in the camp is both harrowing and compelling, but he is nonetheless able to draw from it, wisdom that is relevant to us all.

Viktor Frankl died in 1997. The second part of the book was revised and updated in 1962. I was struck by his reference to what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’, the depression people experience when they seem to lose the meaning in their life. He writes of how increasing automation in the workplace could lead to such a state. Retired an ageing people, he writes, can easily be afflicted by this as their once busy lives become seemingly empty. Here in the 21st century many of us have more leisure time than ever, but many of us don’t know what to do with it and may in fact be lonelier and less fulfilled than ever. Perhaps this explains the ‘Blitz spirit’ that older British people often reminisce about – in the suffering they found community and meaning and purpose. Perhaps it also explains the mental ill-health epidemic that seems to be affecting developed nations all over the world.

All of the above may be total gobbledygook, the ramblings of a middle-aged woman trying to work out her own purpose! I hope what will have come across to you, however, is that this is a very powerful book, that we should all read and which, I guarantee, will give you much food for thought.

Highly recommended, maybe even essential.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Book review – “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin

I am a huge admirer of authors who can come up with clever, original, twisty plots. As a writer myself, this is, I feel, not one of my strengths, so I am in awe of those for whom it clearly is. Chloe Benjamin, in this novel at least, is definitely one of those authors. The following review contains one or two spoilers.

The Immortalists imgThe novel begins in 1969 with the four children of the Gold family – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visiting a fortune-teller in her grimy downtown New York apartment, who is said to be able to predict the date of a person’s death. The mystic consults each child privately about their fate. Their reactions vary; Daniel, the second oldest, for example, says he thinks it is all rubbish. The younger children seem more vulnerable and more preoccupied, particularly Simon, who at this point is only seven years old, and who is told that he will die young.

The novel jumps forward ten years when the children’s father, Saul, dies. This leaves their needy mother, Gertie, distraught. It was expected that Simon would continue the family tailoring business, but this is very far from his intention. With the fortune teller’s prediction preying on his mind, he is easily persuaded by Klara to leave New York and make a new life for himself in San Francisco, where, free of family expectations, he can lead a more fulfilling life. Simon is gay, something Klara recognises clearly, but they both know that this truth would be devastating to their traditional Jewish mother. Simon could never follow in his father’s footsteps.

Simon not only moves to the other side of the country, but he breaks away from the family completely, much to the consternation of Daniel, who sees Simon’s behaviour as wilful and selfish. It also means that someone else will have to care for their mother, a role that Daniel expected Simon would take on. We watch with trepidation the hedonistic lifestyle that Simon leads. It is the early ‘80s and there is talk of a terrible new ‘gay disease’. Simon’s behaviour has a kind of death-wish about it.

Spoiler alert!

Simon dies – but that might not really be a spoiler, because you know it had to happen! Once Simon’s death becomes inevitable, the narrative of the book becomes clear. The author teases us by inviting us to consider whether Simon’s death was an accurate prediction by the fortune-teller, or whether being given a date of death drives us towards fulfilling that prediction. To what extent is our destiny within our control, and to what extent mapped out for us? Did Simon in fact escape one kind of destiny (the one his mother determined, life as a tailor in the family business) for another (dying from a horrible incurable disease)?

Next, we are told Klara’s story. Klara is the most bohemian and perhaps the most fragile of the four Gold children. She meets and falls in love with Raj. They have a daughter and after some lean years on the road, they eventually develop a highly successful magic act with a residency in Las Vegas. They call themselves The Immortalists, after their seemingly death-defying tricks. Success is a burden for Klara, however, and this, coupled with her unresolved grief over Simon’s death, leads her into a life of alcoholism. Klara is fascinated by the life story of her grandmother, also a travelling magician, and replicating some of her tricks becomes part of the magic act. Whilst trying to emulate a particularly dangerous one, she hangs herself in a hotel room – deliberately? Was she trying to cheat the prediction?

Daniel was the most sceptical of the children. He is convinced that Klara and Simon’s deaths were caused by the fortune teller’s predictions and, with the aid of a police officer who once met Klara, he hunts down the elderly fortune-teller hoping to bring her to justice. The hunt becomes an obsession for him. I won’t reveal the rest of Daniel’s story.

Finally, there is Varya, who was told by the fortune teller she would live to 88. She is working as a senior biologist conducting experiments into longevity using monkeys. Varya, like all her siblings, has some considerable mental health difficulties. She has severe anxiety and OCD, restricting her calorific intake to prolong her life (as she does with her monkey research subjects) and shunning meaningful human relationships – has Varya become dangerously obsessed with fulfilling the fortune-teller’s prediction? Her world is turned upside down when her favourite monkey becomes gravely ill in the experiment and Varya breaks with protocol in a way that threatens the costly research project, an act which damages her professionally. She also she meets a young journalist, who claims to be interested in her work but who is not in fact who he says he is. Varya’s ordered, controlled life unravels and she must face her demons, not just for her own sake, but on behalf of her troubled siblings too.

The story has a brilliant ending with Ruby (Klara’s daughter), and Gertie, the Gold children’s mother, coming together at the end. I listened to this on audiobook and was totally hooked. It’s a long but extremely satisfying book, so many threads, brilliantly woven together. Some reviewers have said it has too many clichés, others found aspects of the plot contrived, but I absolutely loved it.

Highly recommended.

If you have read The Immortalists I would be interested to know what you thought of it.

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Books to look forward to in 2020

You would have to have been under a literary rock this last week or two to have missed the fact that the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be published on 5 March. An edited extract of the first chapter was published in The Guardian on Saturday – just savour these opening lines:

“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”

The Mirror and the Light imgI think we can believe the hype – this is surely a writer at the top of her game! A few lucky critics who have had a preview have already tipped it for this year’s Booker Prize (parts one and two both won in 2009 and 2012). I am a huge fan of Mantel, ever since I read “A Place of Greater Safety”, a novel about the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was the book that really got me back into reading after I’d finished my English degree – I was all ‘read-out’ by the time I graduated, so this book saved me!

I am looking forward to reading The Mirror and the Light although at a stonking 912 pages, don’t expect a review any time soon!

2020-02-24 14.54.26There are many other books to get excited about this year. Isabel Allende’s latest book A Long Petal of the Sea was published in English last month. It is a story about escapees from the Spanish Civil War arriving in Chile in 1939, their evacuation having been organised by the great national poet Pablo Neruda. I was lucky enough to attend a talk Isabel Allende gave in Manchester (with Jeanette Winterson!) a couple of weeks ago and she was every bit as impressive and inspiring as I expected her to be. AND I got a signed copy of the book!

Sebastian Barry’s sequel to the wonderful Days Without End, will be published next month. Called A Thousand Moons it follows the story of Winona, the native American girl adopted by the narrator Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole. Later in the spring look out for Simon Armitage’s first collection of poetry to be published since he became poet laureate, Magnetic Field. Also, new novels from Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, winner of last year’s Women’s Prize, called Silver Sparrow, and Ottessa Moshfegh, whose thriller Eileen was one of the highlights of the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Her new novel is called Death in Her Hands and promises to be another novel of drama and suspense when a woman comes across a mysterious note in the woods. I am also looking forward to the next Marwood and Lovett novel from Andrew Taylor – I loved The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and am about to start The King’s Evil. This is a really interesting series of books.

Highlights of the summer for me will be a new novel from the wonderful Elena Ferrante called The Lying Life of Adults, about adolescent shame, set, like her Neapolitan novels, in Naples. Also, the final part of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Summer; I read Autumn in 2017 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and recently reviewed Winter. Better get on and finish Spring! Another book that will be hotly anticipated this summer will be the new one from Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife, a book I loved. The new one is said to be about Hillary Clinton and is as yet untitled.

Information on what we can expect in the second half of the year is naturally a bit more sketchy, although I believe there are new novels from Caitlin Moran, Nick Hornby, comedian and Pointless presenter Richard Osman, and William Boyd. On the non-fiction front, I am excited by the prospect of memoirs from Manchester’s punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke, and from trans US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

So, it looks like my TBR list for 2020 has well and truly written itself!

There will be plenty more releases announced as the year goes on, and I like to post every few months on what’s coming up, so watch this space.

What new releases are you looking forward to this year?

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Book review – “Winter” by Ali Smith

This was the first book I started in the new year and I am delighted to have read it in January, the deep British midwinter, when the light is scarce but the days pass by at what seems like a snail’s, or at least a hibernating creature’s pace. That seems about right to me – I can’t really understand the wave of bloggers and columnists who are currently bemoaning the slow passage of January; I don’t really want my life to flash by me! Whilst Winter is a complex and multi-layered novel, it does seem to me to be one of the dominant themes, that is, our tendency to be propelled ever faster (I’m deliberately avoiding the term ‘forward’) on to the next thing. This might mean that we fail to notice what is in front of us, the life we have and are in right now, and we are in grave danger of losing something precious as a result.

In the same way that the first part of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, the Man Booker-nominated Autumn, was a highly political book, written in 2016 and described as the first post-Brexit British novel, so the ‘winter’ of this book refers to the perilous times in which we find ourselves. For many of us, these are indeed dark times where the alienation of anything ‘other’ seems to be a movement gaining traction. Bernardine Evaristo explored similar themes in her Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other.

Winter imgIn Winter, Ali Smith examines the ideas through the dynamics of a family thrown unwillingly together at Christmas. Sophia lives alone in a large house in Cornwall. She was a successful businesswoman but, now late in life, finds herself alone, estranged from her sister, not knowing what is going on in the life of her only son in London, and navigating with despair some of the dehumanising aspects of modern life. When we meet her at the start of the book, she is communicating with what I can only describe as a hallucination of a child’s head, which floats about with her. To the reader, this seems surreal at first, but it gradually becomes merely a manifestation of Sophia’s mental state – her deep loneliness and her disconnection from normal life and society. Arthur, Sophia’s son will have similar hallucinations later in the book. Sophia goes about her Christmas Eve business in the town with sadness, recalling the once vibrant high street that is now a series of boarded-up shops, frustrated at being unable to withdraw money from her own bank account and the inability of the young man in the bank to appreciate or meet her needs as a customer – she has nostalgia for the days of the friendly bank manager.

Arthur, Sophia’s son, living in London, seems to have a similarly depressing existence. He works as a researcher for a legal firm, but has very little human contact with anyone there as all his work is done remotely. He also writes a blog, ‘Art in Nature’, but this has been sabotaged by his estranged girlfriend, Charlotte, who has also stolen his laptop, forcing him to work out of the local library, where he has to negotiate queues of others wanting to use the computers there. Arthur, or Art, is due to be spending Christmas in Cornwall with Charlotte and his mother, but Charlotte has now left him, and, unwilling to reveal this to his mother, he pays a young woman, Lux, whom he meets at a bus stop, £1000 if she will go to Cornwall with him and pretend to be Charlotte.

The third member of Sophia’s family to join the party is Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Whilst they were close growing up, they grew apart as Iris became more of an activist, involving herself at Greenham Common, living in squatting communities with artists and outsiders, going to Greece to help with the refugee crisis, all of which straight-laced and ‘proper’ Sophia despised.

Lux, the heavily pierced, highly educated non-British outsider, takes on the role of objective observer, reflector, and questioner, and becomes the catalyst for what is initially, a breaking down of the fragile family relations, which then makes way for a greater empathy, between siblings and between generations, and an opening up of previously taboo conversations. In Lux, we see how the outsider is in fact the one with the under-valued talents, with the insights which help everyone to drop their guard and open their hearts, and with the intelligence and knowledge which enables them to understand their own cultural inheritance.

There are times when I found this book challenging and disjointed – Sophia’s floating child’s head at the beginning was puzzling – but the more I read the more absorbed I became in its complex layering of themes and ideas. For one reason and another I read it quite slowly over a couple of weeks, but that was exactly the right pace because the sensation was completely in line with the long slow stretch of winter. I am looking forward to reading part three of the seasonal quartet Spring, which was published last year, and to the publication of the final novel in the series, Summer, due in July.

This is a challenging book but one which I recommend highly.

What sort of books do you like to read at this time of the year?

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Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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