I hesitated before I tagged this as historical, because I’m not sure that it is. It describes itself as ‘a fable’ and I think that is probably correct. It is also one with a very strong message. I’m reluctant to dilute the force of that message by giving away too much information about the plot of the book, which makes writing a review of it very difficult.
Even the blurb gives little away:
Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case, we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.
I think they are right. I only had a vague idea about the subject matter prior to reading, but even then it coloured how I approached the novel. Sadly adult readers are far less likely to come to the novel with little understanding of the subject, so in a sense that is where the book falls down, because it is inevitable that over time, readers will know what the subject is.
The hero of the book is a nine year old boy called Bruno, although as the blurb points out, this is not a story for nine year olds, and I think most nine year olds would find the story disturbing. Bruno lives with his family – an elder sister who is a Hopeless Case, his mother and his father – who has a Really Important Job. He’s a very naïve boy. On reading the book, my adult sensibilities felt that Bruno is really far too naïve to be credible, that surely any child would have been more aware of what was going on. But then I think it’s part of the narrative – a story of “innocence walking into darkness” – that wouldn’t work if Bruno was a more knowing child, a story of friendship, and of a horrible disastrous loss.
Written from Bruno’s POV, with only the occasional slip into someone else’s head, the voice of the narrative is firmly that of a nine year old. Bruno’s concerns are those of children – he observes only those things children observe, and if he seems to lack curiosity, again I think that is necessary for the story to work. And it does work. Horribly.
This is not a novel for the historical nitpicker, but I did nevertheless pick up one minor error.
I won’t say I enjoyed it – the experience was too wrenching, but it is extremely well written and I read it at a sitting. I would however, thoroughly recommend it.
I was curious as to what other reviewers had to say about it. Be warned, there will be spoilers if you follow the links.
This reviewer had the following interesting opening to his discussion.
“It’s important – crucially important – not to lose sight of the dual function of historical fiction. It is not its sole preserve to document historically accurate fact – that position is held, to lesser or greater degrees, by history books. Historical fiction aims to make an artistic statement brought into rapid relief alongside the backdrop of history. It’s indisputable value then is that it triggers within readers a shift in perspective.”
Others were less positive:
The Telegraph: “There is something exploitative about this book.”
The Observer: “But after reading, I felt ambivalent. [This] subject insists on respect, precludes criticism, prefers silence. It will be interesting to see what children make of it. One thing is clear: this book will not go gently into any good night.”
And some just hated it: “To set an admittedly important message in this hideous, historical context [ ] is one of the worst lapses of taste to have emerged since Carlo Bellini’s film, “Life is Beautiful”. [The subject matter is] hardly the appropriate vehicle to use for a fable, however heartfelt its moral. The author [ ] has in fact merely produced a cheap, shallow little book.”
See what you make of it.