Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Striped Pajamas The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is told from the viewpoint of 9 year old Bruno, who comes to his lovely home in Berlin one day to find everyone packing up the house. Father has gotten a promotion, “the Fury” has big plans for him, and the family has to move. Bruno doesn’t want to move and leave his “three best friends for life,” his grandparents, or his home, but he has no choice.

The new destination at what Bruno understands to be “Out-with” does nothing to change his mind. The house isn’t nearly as nice: Bruno wonders if perhaps Father got punished for something by being sent here. Worse, there is no nice neighborhood nor are there children to play with. But out his window he can see a lot of small buildings with a number of people milling about, all wearing the same striped pajamas.

One day Bruno goes exploring, and after walking a long way along a fence, he meets one of the boys in striped pajamas, alone quite a way from the buildings. They begin to talk, and eventually they become friends and continue to talk almost every day, with Bruno sometimes bringing food, until..

Well, I can’t tell you much more than that without spoiling the story. Out-with, if you haven’t guessed, is Auschwitz, and, knowing that, you know this tale will be sad and somewhat disturbing. It ended as I thought it would when I first heard of it, but along the way I did think of other possible endings.

Why write and read a story like this? Because even though Bruno’s part is fictional, Auschwitz was a real place, and the horrible things that happened there really happened. And horrible things happen in some places in the world even now.

The story being told from Bruno’s vantage point allows for a contrast between the evil of Naziism and the innocence of childhood. As Bruno finds out that the people in the pajamas are Jews and that no one seems to like them, he can’t understand why. His new friend seems fine.

I’ve read some criticism that Bruno seems excessively naive, but I think in that day children weren’t as streetwise as they are today. Plus at the time there were even adults who did not pick up on what was happening, so we can hardly expect an inexperienced nine year old boy to have figured it out.

Despite the sadness and starkness, their is a certain charm in Boyne’s prose. There are a number of recurring phrases in Bruno’s world that bring a smile: he inwardly calls his sister “a hopeless case,” his father’s office is “Out of Bounds at All Times and No Exceptions.” “‘Heil Hitler,’ …he presumed, was another way of saying, ‘Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon,’” since everyone said it as they parted.

Boyne’s simple and sparse narrative fits the story well. He has a nice way of suggesting things without spelling them out. I did see the film version after reading the book, and though the basic structure is the same and some scenes are the same, many details have been changed (unnecessarily, in my opinion), and the filmmakers seemed to want to intensify the drama. The drama is pretty intense on its own, and some things are more dramatic when left to the imagination.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Maloney, who did a wonderful job matching the elements of the story with his tone. There is an interesting interview with Boyne at the end of the book that was also included in the audiobook.

Only the victims and survivors can truly comprehend the awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the other side of the fence, staring through from our own comfortable place, trying in our own clumsy way to make sense of it all. (From the Author’s Note).

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)