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BookBrowse Reviews The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

A Fable

by John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne X
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2007, 240 pages

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A World War II fable set in the Third Reich for teens, and with cross-over adult appeal.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas was published in the UK early in 2006, where it has received very positive reviews and much publicity, becoming one of those relatively rare books that crosses over from its intended market (teenagers) to be read widely by adults as well. It was published in hardcover in the USA in September 2006, and is just now out in paperback.

Boyne tells the story of Bruno, a 9-year-old boy living in Berlin in 1943 (the book jacket description pegs it as 1942, but from various references in the book it seems more likely to be 1943) who finds his comfortable life upturned when his father is commanded by the "Fury" to take a new job at a place called "Out-With", where the lonely Bruno discovers a secret friend exactly his age - a boy called Shmuel who wears striped pajamas and lives on the other side of the fence.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is presented as a fable, flagging up front that one is expected to disengage ones normal sense of reality and accept the story as given, but in this instance, when dealing with such an emotive, well recorded and historically recent subject as the Holocaust, this is difficult to do. Everything hinges on the reader accepting Bruno's overwhelming naivety at face value. Is it really credible that Bruno, who lives and goes to school in Berlin and is the son of a senior SS officer, is oblivious to the war, and doesn't know who Hitler is, or what a Jew is - but in other respects is both observant and intelligent? I don't think so!

When his family arrive at Aushwitz, Bruno and his 12-year-old-sister are conveniently the only children in the vicinity, other than those on the other side of the fence. This again stretches credibility because historical records show that about 6,000 SS officers were posted at Auschwitz, so it seems extremely unlikely that other children would not have been around. Then there is the issue of how Bruno could possibly have talked with his friend on the other side of the fence for months without, firstly, being seen, and secondly, ever comprehending that Shmuel is starving (he absentmindedly brings him food from time to time but usually ends up eating most of it on the way). Not to mention the inconvenient detail that by 1943 most young children arriving at the camps were gassed on arrival.

On the other hand, Boyne hits a few powerful notes - such as Bruno's father's response to his question about the people inside the fence - "they're not people at all Bruno"; and his mother's comment that "we don't have the luxury of thinking".

In short, as a fable, this is a powerful tale, and if you can read it as such all well and good (I can't); but as a vehicle for explaining the defining tragedy of the 20th century to young people, let alone adults, it falls short.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2006, and has been updated for the November 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  A Brief History of Auschwitz

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