“The thing about exploring is that you have to know whether the thing you’ve found is worth finding. Some things are just sitting there, minding their own business, waiting to be discovered.”
John Boyne‘s 2006 novel, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, is set during World War II and is told from the perspective of eight-year-old Bruno, the son of a high-ranking Nazi commandant whose family is forced to move to Auschwitz when Bruno’s father is promoted. Away from his friends and growing increasingly bored, Bruno ventures outside of his backyard, defying his mother’s rules, in search for something to do. Here, Bruno meets Shmuel, a young Jewish boy who, unbeknownst to Bruno, is an inmate in a concentration camp, which Bruno believes to be a farm. Their friendship grows with Bruno’s frequent visits, but their innocent secret quickly sets into motion a tragic and devastating sequence of events.
The following post is a review of the book only. You can read my review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book here.
Before knowing about this book, I first watched the film adaptation after a friend had seen a stage production of the story, telling me how harrowingly sad it was. After watching the film and seeing for myself what a heartbreaking story this was, I quickly had to read the book.
Boyne’s novel is a distinctive and inspiring story. Told from the perspective of an eight-year-old boy, and centring around one of the biggest and brutal events in our history, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas handles its subject matter bravely and uniquely, but it does open up some contextual flaws.
What we need to remember with this book is that the holocaust is merely a backdrop. If you’re expecting a factual and historically correct account of someone’s experience in an extermination camp, then you are going to be severely disappointed. With this young perspective from a character who knows very little about the war and what the Germans were doing, the story doesn’t divulge into anything beyond Bruno’s very narrow understanding. Quite ignorantly, these horrible things are just happening somewhere in the background, and that’s only as far as Boyne really goes. His novel is more about a young boy’s naivety, setting in motion something he had no control or understanding of whatsoever, and the Holocaust makes for an excellent setting for that. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is more a really uncomfortable children’s adventure than a Holocaust drama, and we need to remember that to keep our expectations at that level.
Furthermore, this naive perspective opens up a number of other minor flaws that we must again put to the back of our heads, for instance: if there was a gap in the fence which was left unmanned, then why were people not using this as a means of escape? There are many points that seem quite unrealistic or outright incorrect, but you do have to consider that the book is fictionalised due to having a young narrator, telling a story that he knows nothing about. As adults, ones with time to better educated ourselves on this event, we can fill in the gaps for ourselves and put the story into its tragic context, but we can’t expect any more from it.
Whilst the story is incredibly impressive, I did find the writing somewhat frustrating. Boyne once commented that he wrote the entire first draft of the novel in only two and a half days, barely sleeping until he got to the end. This, for me, feels very obvious, often feeling rushed as Bruno’s story rambles on. I found it constantly repetitive, referring to insignificant points that had already been mentioned to distract away from the seriousness of the main events of the story, making me want to skip through whole paragraphs to see some progression. Again, having such a young narrator means that the writing won’t be of a high standard, and the repetition is used because Bruno’s mind would be working in that way, but it just wasn’t a style of writing that I enjoyed reading.
It’s definitely no fault of the narrative style, either, as Alice Sebold does it brilliantly in The Lovely Bones, as does Emma Donogue with Room, both keeping their writing and narrative styles to a high standard whilst using a young person’s narrative, but Boyne’s novel didn’t have the same effect.
Another flaw I found with the writing was due to the spoken languages. Written in English, based on German-speaking characters, there’s a lot of talk about how Bruno doesn’t understand a number of German words. He often says that he thinks Der Führer is “The Fury”, that Auschwitz is “Out-With”, and that “Heil Hitler!” is a fancy word for hello. But his misunderstandings are as if he were English-speaking, which feels a little reckless, overall.
That being said, Boyne has written a brilliant story, despite many writing and language flaws. The best thing to come from this book is the excellent film adaptation that followed, directed by Mark Herman and released in 2008.
For me, the film handled the emotional ending of this book much better, which you can read more about in my Book vs. Film Review here, and watch the trailer for below: