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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Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

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