In his Author's Note, John Boyne writes of his fourth novel, THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS: "the issue of writing about the Holocaust is, of course, a contentious matter, and any novelist who explores it had better be sure about his or her intentions before setting out...it's the responsibility of the writer to uncover as much emotional truth within that desperate landscape as he possibly can." Given this fairly strong sentiment, Boyne has written a definitive novel about this much-explored --- though often not explored well --- subject, but his approach is one that might be considered controversial, and rightfully so. A book billed as a "fable" about the Holocaust --- especially one narrated by the son of a prominent Nazi leader --- is bound to ruffle a few readers' feathers, especially those of the older generations.
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS opens as nine-year-old Bruno comes home from school to find that he is moving. Following his parents' dinner with "the Fury" (i.e. the Fuhrer) wherein the Fury tells Bruno's father that he "[has] big things in mind for him," Bruno and his family gather up their belongings from their five-story house in the heart of Berlin and move to "Out-With" (i.e. Auschwitz) in Poland where Bruno's father is called "Commandant" by everyone around him. Bruno hates his new desolate surroundings compared to the opulent comfort he is used to and wants to return to Berlin immediately. Of course, this doesn't happen.
As the plot progresses, Bruno slowly gets used to his environment. Before long, he becomes bored with his indoor trappings and decides to go exploring along the barrier that separates his family from the hordes of "neighbors" on the other side of the fence. He is curious about the "hundreds of people in the distance going about their business...wearing the same clothes as each other: a pair of grey striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads." On one of his jaunts, he befriends a boy his age named Shmuel and visits him daily, often sneaking leftover food for him from the kitchen. It turns out that he and Shmuel were both born on the same day and the two become quite close from the commonality.
(As far as what happens to Bruno and Shmuel...to give away the ending would be to spoil the impact of the book and whatever gnawing gut reaction is bound to follow its conclusion. This is truly a climax worth waiting for and one that shouldn't be spoiled for the sake of a review.)
What makes THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS different from just any old friendship-in-the-midst-of-tragedy story is that Bruno and Shmuel are from two glaringly dissimilar backgrounds and are living two disparate lives in close proximity to each other, yet they consider themselves equals. What makes it different from many (if not all) other Holocaust stories is that it's told through the eyes of a German boy --- the son of the man put in charge of Auschwitz by Hitler, no less --- who has absolutely no idea what's going on. Bruno is blissfully unaware of the atrocities taking place around him and nothing --- not even what he sees with his own eyes --- seems to alter his seemingly permanent naiveté.
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a bundle of fascinating conjectures, questions and contradictions, many of which beg to be examined and will surely ignite any number of heated conversations about the nature of reality, perspective, prejudice and more. John Boyne is a masterful storyteller who, through the eyes of Bruno, has attempted to tackle and put forth his version of one of the most heinous periods in human history. It remains to be seen where readers' opinions about the novel will fall, but this nonetheless is a worthwhile and profound journey that most should take to find out.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on October 23, 2007