- Continuing my exploration of critically acclaimed books that every school leaver should’ve read, this is the story of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne.
Starting this book I had no idea what it was about. Are the stripped pyjamas indicative of a prison or environment of imprisonment, physical or mental? Is it possibly referring to the clothing often shown in photos from the German concentration camps?
I love the innocence and simplicity of the storyline that gets built around wartime Berlin, with hints at the impending atrocities at the place the family are ‘sent’ to – ‘Out-With’ as Bruno calls it (Auschwitz) – by the ‘Fury’ (the Fuhrer). With a teenage sister and mother who both show interest in a young, cruel, Lieutenant Kotler, we see a little inside the workings of the Commandants home, the formality and rigidity of his house and family as well as the tension within war torn Germany, through the disagreements between Bruno’s father and grandmother. Though never explicitly explained or outlined, there is no doubt as to where and when this story takes place.
Through this new world at Out-With, one very confusing to the young Bruno, we see the segregation and incarceration of the Jews, the holocaust almost happening in front of us, without it ever being discussed or described. Once the family is relocated for his fathers new deployment, Bruno eventually wants to explore his new surroundings. Walking along the fence he finds a boy, the boy in the striped pyjamas.
“The dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.”
Bruno doesn’t understand the meaning of the fence, why he’s on one side and everyone else is on the other, why his father and mother argue about them being there. We gain further understanding of the differences between the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ in wartime Germany through the journey they take to get there – the train station they use has two trains and two platforms. The train they don’t use I can almost imagine being made up of cattle cars, the platform full of families being moved to the camps. Their own train is empty, very plush, and Bruno almost asks if he can invite the others on to their train, but knows enough about what is going on around him to know this would not be a good decision.
As I read this I had a deepening sense of dread of where this could be headed. As the friendship between Bruno and Shmuel grows despite the fence dividing them, so does the feeling of tragedy and impending loss. Where is this friendship headed? From the start there are hints of their ability to sneak under the fence, not to get Shmuel out but for Bruno to get in to help Shmuel find his missing (gassed?) father.
At the end I I kept hoping the march that Schmuel and Bruno are taken on, when Bruno breaks into the camp, does not lead to a happy ending. I’m not interested in spoiling the story of anyone who hasn’t read it, but the end is precisely what you start to think will happen.
“But just as he said this, his feet brought him up a set of steps, and as he marched on he found there was no more rain coming down any more because they were all piling into a long room that was surprisingly warm and must have been very securely built because no rain was getting in anywhere. In fact it felt completely airtight.”
The story ends without closure for Bruno’s family. Over a year after Bruno disappears his mother and sister are back in Berlin, his father comes to a realisation of what might have happened to him.
Held my interest: 9/10
Captured my imagination: 9/10
Worth reading: 9/10