Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

TL;DR – a Holocaust fiction novel told through the eyes of a German child who meets a Jewish child on the other side of a fence encircling a concentration camp. They become friends amidst a time of hatred.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Set during World War II, nine-year old Bruno and his family move to Auschwitz because his father has been promoted to Commandant and assigned to oversee the concentration camp. Bruno does not want to leave their home in Berlin nor does he want to part from his best friends. Things are made worse when he arrives and sees the house they have to live in is nothing compared to their lavish Berlin home.

Miserable and lonely, Bruno ventures forth to a camp he has spied from his house and walks along the chain fence. There he encounters a boy named Shmuel who wears striped pyjamas (prison clothes) just like everyone else on that side of the fence. They strike up a friendship with Bruno not understanding what is going on in the camp, but smuggles food for Shmuel because he always looks so thin and hungry.

As time passes, their bond grows stronger even though Shmuel’s body gets weaker. Eventually Shmuel tells Bruno that his dad has gone missing, and Bruno wanting to help, agrees to sneak into the camp through a hole in the fence. Shmuel manages to find a spare set of striped pyjamas and Bruno puts them on to blend in. Before they can fully search the camp, soldiers round up a group of the prisoners with Burno and Shmuel among them. They are then led into a building, which Bruno thinks is a shelter used to protect from storms but is actually a gas chamber.

In his final moments, as they hold hands, Bruno says to Shmuel that he is his best friend. The door closes and the lights go out.

Bruno’s parents search for him, and it is only when Bruno’s father discovers his son’s clothes folded neatly next to the fence that he is able to piece together what has happened.

Review

John Boyne’s novel is a work of historical fiction. I am not going to delve into the accuracy or lack thereof regarding its setting and the depictions of the characters. There has been plenty of controversy around this novel. The concern around historical inaccuracies and the trivialisation of the Nazi regime has led to criticism and concern that this book will impact adversely on people’s understanding and education of the Holocaust. Again, I reiterate that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is fiction, so if your hackles rise because you’ll be upset by historical liberties taken in this story then I would suggest dropping this off your book list and reading a text book on the Holocaust instead.

There has also been criticism surrounding the main character, Bruno, who has difficulty pronouncing words like ‘The Fuhrer’ and ‘Auschwitz’ which he pronounces ‘The Fury’ and ‘Out-with’. This has been perceived by some as downplaying the significance and atrocities that occurred in Auschwitz. Given the story is told from the viewpoint of Bruno who is nine-years old, I have accepted Boyne’s capturing of a child’s perspective. If anything I believe it to be quite effective and not at all reducing the magnitude of the Holocaust.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a thoroughly engrossing read. Boyne was able to capture my imagination through his writing and insert me in a place that was vivid, horrifying and alien, and at the same time, made me care about Bruno even though I have the knowledge of the events at Auschwitz. Somehow Boyne is able to stay the underlying dread for long enough that you will see it through to the bitter end. This is in large part to capturing the eyes, mind and heart of a child that is Bruno. Though you want to ignore that deep down somewhere you know this whole thing will end in tragedy, you are tugged along anyway by this thread of hope that perhaps Bruno and Shmuel will somehow defy their situation and miraculously escape.

The fact that Bruno and Shmuel see each other as children and not German and Jew is the obvious moral and message that Boyne seeks to impart to readers both now and into the future. The moral imperative to treat each other as human beings, to care for one another, to show compassion is never more evident than in every interaction between the two children, whether that be Bruno saving food to give to Shmuel, their talks and sharing of stories, or in the final act when Bruno sneaks into Shmuel’s side of the fence to search for Shmuel’s father.

It is heart wrenching in its simplicity. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been described as a cautionary tale and a fable. It is both these things and so much more. To me, it was not simply a fable to reflect the Holocaust but also a reflection on our world today and how hate and fear can divide us. This is never more evident than in the final words in this book where Boyne writes, ‘Of course, all of this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.’

4.5 out of 5.

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