Monday, January 14, 2013

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I'm a late adopter when it comes to books and this one has been around a while. This was Cathy's 'Secret Santa' book at book group. She read it in one sitting and then suggested I read it. I found out later that was because she wanted to discuss the ending with me.

The story is about a nine year-old boy called Bruno who moves from Berlin in 1943 when his father is promoted to Commandant at a concentration camp. He hates it there as he is lonely and there is nothing to do. But then he befriends a boy called Shmuel who is living on the other side of the fence, inside the camp.

The tension builds towards the end and I had a vague sense that something bad was going to happen - as presumably Bruno will realise what is going on and what is going to happen to Shmuel. However, the ending wasn't quite what I expected and it stayed with me vividly for a couple of days.

What is clever about the book is that for almost all of it you know more than the main protagonist. There are several moments where Bruno just doesn't get what is going on - for example when he tries to explain to Shmuel that he should have caught a less crowded train to the camp, because the one Bruno travelled on had plenty of room.

Another interesting element is that, with the exception of one young soldier, the Commandant and his family are portrayed as ordinary people doing what they think is right and good and proper. Bruno's mother drinks a bit too much; his father is authoritarian; his sister, Gretel, just accepts the existence of the camp as how things are - but none of them are bad people, even as they participate to a greater or lesser extent in the Holocaust.

It's to John Boyne's credit that as an author he didn't wimp out at the end. Having made you care about the characters, the power of the story would have been considerably less if he had given it a happy ending.

I gave this book five stars, so it will join the list. It's not one I will read again in a hurry, mainly because it's so memorable. In many ways, reading it reminded me of when I saw Schindler's List - the shock and horror of what happened in the Holocaust confronted me anew. Again, John Boyne, did well to take something so well-known and yet make me as a reader feel horrified all over again.

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