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: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

This book has certainly captured headlines since it was published in November. It was abridged and serialised on Radio 4 the week it came out. I caught a couple of the episodes, but this was merely a taster since, having now finished reading it, at over 400 pages, they gave only the very edited highlights. I do not normally go in for celebrity memoirs, and one could be quite cynical about the enormous deal that has been struck by the Obamas and their publishers (though I gather they are donating royalties to charity). However, very early on in the book any cynicism I might have had melted away.  I have no idea what help Michelle had in writing this book, but it does not ‘feel’ ghost-written. Her narrative voice is very authentic – warm and compassionate, the same way that she comes across when she speaks.

becoming imgMy book club chose this for our pre-Christmas read (I’ve only just finished it!) and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s long, and perhaps could have been edited somewhat, but I imagine the main buyers of this book will be Michelle-fans who want as much detail as possible. The first part of the book was, for me, the least engaging. My fellow readers and I were a little surprised to learn that Michelle Robinson did not in fact come from an affluent background. She was a ‘Southsider’ – from a part of Chicago that was fairly blue-collar and largely African-American, and became more so as she grew older and some of the white residents moved out. A picture is painted of a family with strong values around hard work, doing the right thing, caring for others and loyalty to family. Michelle excelled in school through hard work, determination and the support of her parents and attended both Princeton and Harvard Law School. She has never forgotten her humble beginnings, however, and this underpins her commitment to equality and social justice. However, I did feel this part of the book was most descriptive; in the context of the book as a whole I can see why it would have been important to her to put her politics in perspective, but it was a tiny bit…pedestrian?

Michelle met her husband, Barack Obama, while she was working at a law firm in Chicago, and the development of their relationship forms the basis of the second part of the book. It’s a lovely romantic story, and they are clearly deeply committed to one another. However, it did not come without some pain. Much has been made of their difficulties conceiving a child (both daughters were born after IVF treatment) and of their seeking relationship counselling. What I found most interesting, however, was how Michelle has wrestled with and had to reconcile herself to, the role that being the spouse of a high-profile politician, then a Senator, then a President, has meant for her own career ambitions and her life as a parent.

The challenges of this dilemma are thrown into sharpest relief in the later chapters of Part Two where Barack Obama makes his bid for the US Presidency in 2007/8. The way that Michelle was treated is both fascinating and appalling. How she coped is beyond me, and it is to her enormous credit that she was able to rise above the racist and misogynist vitriol that came her way. I suspect those things ultimately made her stronger. Since Barack Obama left office in 2016, there have been calls from many quarters for Michelle to consider running at some point in the future, to which she has repeatedly said she never would (she states this explicitly in the final pages of the book). When you read her personal reflections in the 2008 campaign you can see fully why she is not made for that particular political bear-pit. She is a much better person than that and working towards a bigger picture than the short-termism associated with political elections.

As my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted “Harvard-educated” in their description of me, but generally left it at that. A couple of news outlets had published stories speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s  growing political stature, which was painful to read. 

The final part of the book looks at her life in the White House. As she writes in the opening lines:

There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.

As with most things in her life, Michelle Obama had to find her own way. In some ways that must be a liberating position to be in – having the freedom to write your own job description (the present First Lady has taken a somewhat different approach) – but for Michelle Obama there was the deep hostility she had to contend with, not just the political opposition, but the more personal, racist, misogynist and body-shaming tone she also endured.

I understood…that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. 

When the book was published, commentators pounced upon her comments about the present incumbent of the White House, looking for something juicy. Yes, there are some criticisms, as you might expect, and sadly the echo chamber rather defines the politics of the age – most of us prefer to read or listen to people who reflect the views we already hold. But what struck me in fact was the restraint, and the most chilling comment was that Michelle Obama will never forgive Trump and his team for placing the life of her husband and her daughters in danger. This sums up the book, and the woman, for me; it’s family, loved ones, values first, politics second.

If you’re a Michelle fan you’ll love this and have probably read it already anyway! If you’re objective there is still much to enjoy here and there’s no doubting the courage, integrity and sheer grit of the woman. She is undoubtedly a role model to us all.

What did you think of Michelle Obama’s memoir? 

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