Martine's Reviews > The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
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Sep 13, 09

bookshelves: british, film, historical-fiction, modern-fiction, novellas, disappointing, war
Read in September, 2009

I wanted to like this book. I really did. After all, how can one fail to be drawn in by a story about a German boy, the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer, who makes friends with a Jewish boy at Auschwitz, only to fail to understand his new friend's situation and meet a gruesome end with him? It's a great premise with plenty of scope for drama. A writer looking to fictionalise ignorance of the Holocaust would be hard-pressed to come up with a better idea.

Sadly, I found myself rather underwhelmed by The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for several reasons. Firstly, I didn't care for the main character, who is meant to pass for young and naive but really is rather selfish and obnoxious. Secondly, I found the faux-child-like tone of the book cloying and unconvincing, and thirdly, I was annoyed by the plot holes which kept popping up with alarming regularity. So while I admit the book is a page-turner and that I was keen to finish it to find out how it ended, I can't in good conscience give it more than two stars. To give it more than two stars would be an insult to better written books.

I'll start with the plot holes. There are so many of those in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, it beggars belief that a nine-year-old German boy from a prominent Nazi family should never have heard the word 'Jews', nor be aware of what the Nazis think of Jews. Even if his parents tried to shield him from the nastier aspects of war, which Bruno's parents certainly seem to do, he would have been indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda from a young age onwards and would have been quite familiar with the main tenets of National Socialism and its leader, Adolf Hitler. Thus Bruno's complete ignorance of the Führer and the fact that Germany is at war is hard to buy. Similarly, it beggars belief that our young 'hero' could have near-daily conversations with a Jewish friend at Auschwitz for a year without having the faintest idea of what is going on in the camp. After over three hundred conversations with an obviously hungry and filthy friend, you'd think that even a self-centred boy like Bruno would realise that the camp is an unpleasant place where people starve, disappear and die, right? After all that time, it would also have to be blatantly obvious to him that the camp guards aren't very nice people. I know children aren't the most astute observers, but I refuse to believe that a nine-year-old boy who sees prisoners cower before guards, obviously scared, and then hears gunshots, would be surprised at the people on the ground not getting up, having to be carried away instead. Even in the 1940s, when children weren't exposed to action flicks to the extent they are now, boys surrounded by soldiers on a daily basis would have known what a gun was and what it did to the person it was pointed at. So the part of the book where Bruno watches Jewish prisoners being killed and thinks they are 'rehearsing a play' rang completely untrue to me. Quite frankly, I found it a little insulting to be expected to buy that kind of abject ignorance.

Other plot holes? Well, I refuse to believe that a Jewish boy at Auschwitz could meet up with his friend outside the fence nearly every day for a year without ever being detected, or that there could be a hole in the fence big enough for a boy to slip through without any or indeed many of the other Jewish prisoners trying to escape through it. There is simply no way that could have happened in real life, and I scratch my head at Boyne's asking us to believe it. I also scratch my head at some of the less prominent historical plot holes in the book, such as the fact that Hitler and Eva Braun apparently visited people's homes without bodyguards (really?), or that the Germans apparently didn't check their officers' family backgrounds before putting them in charge of their largest concentration camps. Yeah, right. Like that would have happened.

The book doesn't just contain historical inaccuracies, though. Another thing that put me off was the linguistic inaccuracies. For example, Bruno keeps calling Auschwitz 'Out-With' and the Führer 'the Fury', ad nauseam, despite being corrected several times. These are mistakes no German child in his right mind (least of all the child of a high-ranking Nazi officer) would make, and they seriously got in the way of my appreciation of the story, as linguistic inaccuracies tend to do. To make matters worse, Boyne seems to expect us to believe that Shmuel, a nine-year-old boy from the Jewish ghetto in Cracow, Poland, is fluent in German, which is unlikely, even if his mother is a language teacher. In my opinion, such mistakes are inexcusable, even in works of fiction. I can't believe Boyne's editors didn't pick up on these things and make the necessary corrections.

I didn't overly care for Boyne's style of writing, either. While I will (again) admit that I couldn't put The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas down (the premise is good and the tension is ramped up quite adequately), I disliked the pseudo-childish tone of the writing, which felt contrived and unnecessarily cutesy to me, and occasionally made me groan. Furthermore, I found the occasional excursions into Gretel and Shmuel's minds jarring; a more unified point of view (to wit, Bruno's) would have been preferable, in my opinion. Finally, I thought the final chapter felt rather tacked on, and several plot lines weren't tied up well enough for my liking. What was the point of Maria, for instance? What was her background, and what was her role in the story? I'm not sure I understand. I also think much more could have been made of several of the male characters -- Pavel and Bruno's father come to mind, or the eponymous boy in the striped pyjamas. As they are, they are cardboard cut-outs with no personality of their own. To be sure, this is partly because they are described from the point of view of a sensationally unimaginative nine-year-old, but still, I think Boyne could have done a better job infusing his characters with some personality. It would have made a flawed reading experience a bit more memorable.

Finally, like other reviewers I'm having a hard time figuring out the point of the book. What are we supposed to take away from this story? That people can be staggeringly blind to evil, even when it is perpetrated right in front of them? Er, OK. Point taken. It could have been made in a less cloying and mistake-riddled manner, though.

Way to ruin a promising premise, Mr Boyne.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Trevor (last edited Sep 13, 2009 02:33AM) (new)

Trevor Sounds horrible - have you seen Pan's Labyrinth? A wonderful and yet very disturbing film where the innocence of the viewer is challenged in an incredibly unsettling way - effectively two versions of 'the story' are presented and you get to choose which you are going to think of as the actual story. I think it succeeded in ways you were hoping this one might.


message 2: by V. Nicole (new)

V. Nicole Wow! What a review! I wasn't aware that this was a book. I had wanted to see the movie but heard I would be too depressed. [highly sensitive:]The book sounds like it would have had potential if written differently. I suppose I won't waste my time reading it now. The fact that knowing a 9 year old is oblivious to the obvious evil would upset me forever. I really enjoyed your lengthy review! You make excellent points.


message 3: by Hannah (new)

Hannah Eiseman-Renyard Seconding the other two comments here - I was kinda curious about this book, but this review has (rightly) put me off. It always annoys me when people write children as poetic innocents whilst completely ignoring what it is to be a child - sure you know less than most adults, but you're not stupid.


message 4: by Hannah (new)

Hannah Eiseman-Renyard Trevor wrote: "have you seen Pan's Labyrinth? A wonderful and yet very disturbing film where the innocence of the viewer is challenged in an incredibly unsettling way - effectively two versions ..."

Yes, spot on. I really loved the way the child's subplot could be taken or left without interferring with the facts of the piece. That's my kind of fantasy narrative - there should be more like it.


message 5: by Ben (new)

Ben The movie has all of the same problems as the book; I'd assumed this was a problem in the adaptation since it felt Hollywood-ized.


message 6: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I stopped going to cinema shortly after seeing it - I've reached an age where I can't seem to distance myself enough from cinema and find it (when it is particularly good) troubling for far too long. It took me weeks to get Pan's Labyrinth out of my system.


message 7: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I didn't even consider this book because of the subject matter. Like Trevor, I'm at an age where injustice and horror on the screen are so keenly felt in myself that I have to work to get rid of it.

The review. Martine, that is some fine work you did. I'm still struggling to get my reviewing skills up to par.


message 8: by Martine (last edited Sep 13, 2009 07:34AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Martine Wow. Thanks, everyone. It's nice to see I still have readers despite my lengthy absences from Goodreads. :-)

Trevor, I have seen Pan's Labyrinth, and I love it because it successfully blends the child-like and fantastic and the utterly gruesome. It is unflinching in its portrayal of horror, which is something I can appreciate when it is infused with an appropriate dose of beauty and lyricism -- something Spanish and Asian film-makers excel at. One of the many reasons why The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does not work for me is because it is not honest about the horrors of World War 2. The horrors are sugar-coated, Life Is Beautiful-style. They are referred to in such an oblique way that child readers probably haven't the foggiest what is going on, which is unfortunate, as the book appears to be pitched to young adult readers in some places; it definitely is in America. I think the book would have been more effective if it had been more straightforward about the horrors it alludes to, instead of sugar-coating and infantilising them. All the sugar-coating achieves is making the story sound phoney and sentimental, like a bad Hollywood movie.

Speaking of Hollywood movies, Ben, I can't speak for the film adaptation as I haven't seen it, but judging from the trailer, the film does indeed have the same problems as the book. It does look rather mawkish, doesn't it?


message 9: by Ben (new)

Ben Mawkish indeed. I had a similar reaction to Life is Beautiful as you did...


message 10: by Paul (new)

Paul "it beggars belief that a nine-year-old German boy from a prominent Nazi family should never have heard the word 'Jews', nor be aware of what the Nazis think of Jews."

Quite so : in Mein Kampf AH stated : "No boy or girl must leave school without having attained a clear insight into the meaning of racial purity and the importance of maintaining the racial blood unadulterated." So that part of the above book sounds all wrong.


message 11: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose It's alllllllll wrong, Paul. It's nonsense. I had to read it for my now-defunct book group and the worst part was that everyone else loved it.


message 12: by Plch (last edited Feb 16, 2010 04:10AM) (new)

Plch Just to add an historical note: I've read the testimony of a woman that was 4-5 years old when she lived next to a concentration camp as the daughter of one of the German officiers at the head of the camp. She was really still innocent also because she was too young to go to school. Still: one day she wandered off and happened to see a soldier beating up a very frail man that collapsed without defending himself... she just ran instinctively to protect the frail man from more beating and the soldier, recognizing her as the daughter of an officer, just stopped.
From that day she realized what was going on around her... she ended the interview saying: how you can say you didn't know? I was 5 and I knew.


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