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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

JOHN Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a relatively short novel – just 215 pages of bold print (paperback edition) – yet its impact couldn’t be more powerful and stays with you long after its shocking conclusion.

Set during World War II, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the story, or fable as Boyne prefers to call it, about an extraordinary friendship between two boys – Bruno, the nine year old son of a German Commandant and Shmuel, a young Pole.

The two meet purely by chance after Bruno and his family have moved from their comfortable home in Berlin to a house in a desolate area. With nothing to do and no-one to play with, Bruno goes for a walk – by the side of the perimeter fence of the camp called ‘Out-With’. Eventually, ‘a small dot appeared in the distance…became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy’ – Shmuel, the boy in the striped pyjamas.

Events unfold through the eyes, ears and mind of Bruno who, of course, knows nothing of the appalling cruelties being inflicted on the people of Europe by his country. Which means details are sketchy, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. And in this, Boyne relies heavily on our knowledge of past events. Yet by juxtaposing innocence and evil in this way, it’s import is all the more chilling.

But much of the book’s success lies in its simplicity. It speaks to us much as a nine year-old would, thereby perpetuating the idea that it’s Bruno’s story. But by doing so, it leaves unanswered questions – what exactly happened to Pavel ‘that made Bruno cry and Gretel grow pale’? And why did Mother use the term ‘precious’ when addressing the young Lieutenant Kurt Kotler? Of course, if you’ve seen the film, which I haven’t, you’ll probably know.

Because it’s not explicit – as we’ve already seen there are no descriptions of atrocities – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an ideal way to introduce youngsters to the horrors of the Holocaust. It will arouse their curiosity and invite further investigation – but only on their terms. Which is as it should be.

Although not an ideal bedtime read, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should not be overlooked by adults, quite simply because what went on in Auschwitz and other camps like it should never be forgotten – even if it does make for uncomfortable reading.

Read the film review