Utterly fabulous: The boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne (2006)

book cover
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.


28 responses to “Utterly fabulous: The boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne (2006)

  1. I am intrigued by your review and am trying to guess what the unmentionable subject matter of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is. I haven’t seen this book out in Australia yet but I will certainly read it when I find it. But I may save it until I’m in a less emotional frame of mind…

  2. It was apparently number 1 in the children’s bestseller list in Oz! Not sure when, but it can’t have been that long ago. It’s well worth the read.

  3. Maybe it was while I was away, but that’s good news because it means I’ll probably find it in the library. I’ve been so out of the loop with everything recently.

  4. Gussy Doe

    This is one of the most moving books i have ever read, and one of the best reads ever. Just buy it and read it, you’ll love it

  5. i found this book amzaingly fun to read. it was an easy read not dint stress my mind to much, but the way john went about setting the book through the innosent eyes of a child was a very interesting way to go about it . it kept me amazed all through till the end. although i thougth the novel finished rather suddenly. but great novel all the same. i had it as my year 10 study and used it as my text in my exam.

    Edited by Cas Stavert. Sorry, Callum you gave the game away in your comment when I’ve gone to considerable trouble not to do so in my review.

  6. nicola meldrum

    I read this as my school novel in i find it wonderfully interesting and would highly recomend it!

  7. I loved this book, it was simple to read but different things had double meanings which i thought was great. John Boyne has a great imagination.

  8. hi i like book, i read this for english and like very muvch feed bakc.

  9. Victoria

    This book is remarkable in the amount of descripition. Except it doens’t tell you exactly what is happening but makes you think of the situation/s that you would have gone through, which is remarkable. Well done John Boyne! It is a fantastic book and hope for many more to read it.

  10. I am thinking of using this book to teach a year 9 class. What literary techniques do you think I should focus on? I was contemplating teaching it in relation to POV?
    Some feedback would be great!

  11. I also thought it was a great book- I liked the way that it was written so differently from most books, and the way that it shows that not everybody is the same as the people they are surrounded by. Great book!

  12. I think that thie book was amazing, i am currently doing it in English for my higher personal study and i like the way John Boyne depicts the holocaust through the innocence of a child – Bruno
    Great Read!

  13. Emily!!=]

    I loved this book i didn’t want to finish it . . . .
    (i liked it that much) i really recommend this book as it is for a big age range….i have done it in english but we finished it about 2weeks ago =[
    such a great read!!!

  14. Why is “Hopeless Case” written with capital letters? Is there a hidden meaning?

  15. Hopeless Case was capitalised in the version of the book I have. There’s no hidden meaning – it’s just for emphasis.

  16. i’m in year 9 and i had to read it for english – and i just finished an essay about how Bruno changes and develops through writer’s techniques and conventions + events.

    I think it’s good how the writer doesn’t reveal much about where bruno is and what is happening around but you slowly get the picture.

  17. I have to say that this is an extraordinary book. The story was okay and I was touched by Bruno’s and Shmuel’s friendship. Since both were quite lonely, it was nice to read about them spending time talking to each other.

    However, Bruno’s just too naive and ignorant. And he could have brought more food for Shmuel, as he tends to eat what he brought on the way to see his friend!

    Anyway, here’s my review of the book! =)

  18. Jess Young

    love it 🙂 im doing my A2 coursework on it comparing the innocent narrativee to that in ‘the curous incident of the dog in the night-time’

  19. My english teacher gave me this book to do a comparison with the Novel night. At first Bruno seemed like a child who did not listen to anyone other than the little voice within his head and only aroused a small curiousity within my mind. The ending however, made my stomach chune at the very thought that Bruno had no understanding as to what would happen to him and the thought that nothing could be done to save him.

  20. I loved this novel greatly, I have now got an understanding of the terrible things the Jews had to go through on a daily basis.
    It makes me feel ashamed and sick to think such people could discriminate against such a populated race.
    The whole thing started becuase germany went through a economic depression and the germans couldn’t cope; but the jews could cope, and hitler perswayded the germans that the depression was caused by them.
    Although children of this generation will never experience such a thing; it was good of the writer John B. to convay an understanding of what it was like back then

  21. i thought the book was very powerful, well written and so on. However if the book was originally intended for the younger audience, you wonder whether children should be confronted with such a dark, monstrous event such as the Holocaust and the final solution?

  22. imfailingatlifee:P

    Ohmygosh. I had to read this novel for a Novel Study at my school, and I read it over 8 TIMES! The style of writing is a little odd, but since it’s supposed to be in the perspective of an adventurous 9-year-old, I understand better.

  23. I wonder if “Hopeless Case” is a reference to when Anne Frank calls herself a hopeless case due to how everyone in the Annex views her (mis)behavior.

  24. Lee Whelan

    l loved the novel. Year 10 students are studying the text in at the school where l work So innocently written you just can’t put it down. Stories that are narrated by children are especially engaging for reluctant readers and the Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a great example. I am now going to share the novel with other family members as l’m sure that the story will reach everyone’s heart

  25. this was a sad book but i learnt a lot about the holocaust that i didnt know before.

  26. joceline

    ohmygosh,lol i realy love the book and the stroy the story is based on 2 inocent little boys with a different backround and life style,and they become freinds and there friendship was strong and they had fun talkin to each other throw the fence, they ended up dieing toghether (holding hands) LOL I LOVE WRITING 🙂

  27. Anonymous

    thanks 4 ruining the storyline joceline

  28. Anonymous

    Joceline is obviously stupid and illiterate… ruin the plot and set the record for most spelling mistakes in one paragragh. Well Done.

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