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Two boys, a prison camp apart
Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
Member Name: pmcds
Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
Advantages: Powerfully written, clever perspective
Disadvantages: Nothing really
Usually, I read the book before I watch the film where possible, but having seen the film for this two years ago, I have only recently realised it was based on a book. I thought the take was very good, and so endeavoured to pick up the book and give it a go too.
John Boyne's book is somewhat controversial in its depiction of one of the horrors of the war through the eyes of a 9 year son of a German officer. Bruno is a typical 9 year old boy, inquisitive beyond belief and innocent throughout. When he and his sister Gretel have to move from the comfort of their large Berlin house, away from all of their friends and everything they are used to, they are dismayed to be moving to a smaller and more remote house, adjacent to some sort of wilderness area surrounded by a fence.
It's here that Bruno longs to explore, even though he is told he is never to go near the fence. But when no one is aware, he goes exploring along the fence, and eventually comes to a part of it where he meets a boy exactly the same age as him, wearing grey and white striped pyjamas. Through their conversations, the two boys realise just how different everything is for them. While Bruno has everything he needs, his new friend Schmuel is clearly a prisoner, although Bruno is too young to understand exactly what is going on, despite attempts from 12 year old Gretel to help.
What the book does is to try and demonstrate the depravity of certain aspects of the war and prison camps, through the eyes of the innocents: children. Really, Bruno and Schmuel are no different at all. Boyne is clear that they are born on the same day, they talk about similar things and have the same outlook on others. The difference is in how they are treated, with Bruno living in comfort and Schmuel wasting away. The boys' meetings continue throughout the book once they encounter each other for the first time, and despite Bruno smuggling food in for Schmuel, the boy in the striped pyjamas seems to get thinner.
Boyne tries to write from a 9 year old's perspective, and gets it right most of the time. I think you have to allow him a certain amount of artistic licence in order to get his points across, but essentially it's all about how horrible things like prison camps were, without it actually ever going into particular detail about it. The unspoken atrocities sort of mirror how we often cope or deal with something so horrible that the vast majority of us never had to be exposed to. The writing style is simple and uncomplicated, written with the innocence of the characters, who are very well developed.
The book focuses mainly on Bruno, and Schmuel once he enters into it. However, the first chunk of the book is spent establishing the relative comfort Bruno's life has, and how the things that are inconvenient for him seem so important. This of course then pales into insignificance once we arrive at the prison camp he mishears and calls 'Out-With'! To get to this stage, Boyne develops those around Bruno very clearly and carefully, from Bruno's family, to the best friends he slowly but surely forgets about, then their butler and maid, other German officers, and the 'Fury' himself. There's often no explanation for these mixed up terms that Bruno uses, assuming we will understand that it's Auschwitz and the Fuhrer, and that it's all a horror that somehow escapes a naive and innocent 9 year old German whose new best friend is a mirror, save that he's a Polish Jew.
The boys are aware they are different and they shouldn't be friends, but it doesn't stop them, and I think it's the questioning humanitarianism of the two of them that is the most powerful thing here - how they are the most important thing, the development and future of the two nations, yet it is they who are the punished in this tale. Boyne maintains the innocent writing style from Bruno's point of view, maintaining the third person effectively indeed. I was impressed by this book, and even though I had seen the film already, it didn't spoil it for me. There is a powerful ending, which I think has more power in the book as you need to visualise it yourself. Easy to read and very powerful, a respectful and defiant tale. Recommended.
Summary: Effective novel about prison camps from John Boyne