Heartwrenching Realities: A Review of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

If you start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old named Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later, you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one. (From the back cover)

Good stories involve you emotionally. In whatever way that story is supposed to, it does. It could make you tense, or make you sad, or make you happy but there has to be some sort of emotional investment that you, the reader, have made in the book and that the book takes advantage of in some way, shape, or form. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does this beautifully.

Decent stories allow me to disengage from the emotional pull of them very quickly after they’re over. This is almost a week after I finished The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, and I am only just now disengaging enough to write this review. Why? Because this book is sad.

Not in the bittersweet way, or the shimmer of hope way, but in the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking method of pain. Because that’s what this book makes you feel: not sadness, but pain. It hurts to read these final chapters; not because they are done poorly–far from it, they are near-perfect–but because by the time you arrive at the final chapter, you are so emotionally invested in the characters, but at the same time fully aware of the reality of their surroundings, that you can’t help but feel pain when the end comes.

John Boyne, the author, approaches the subject in a different way. He writes from the perspective of a nine-year-old named Bruno (who is completely ignorant of anything that is going on around him), and who’s sole concern is becoming content with his new home in what Bruno thinks is called Out-With (Auschwitz). Then, very slowly, Bruno begins to discover certain odd things about his surroundings: the hundreds of people beyond the fence, the soldiers constantly milling around, his father’s frequent disappearances. But instead of Bruno realizing something is wrong, or at the very least trying to figure out what is going on, he takes it all through his view of the world. The people beyond the fence simply moved there, and were given nice jobs to take care of them. The soldiers are protecting his father because he is important. His father is going on business trips of little consequence.

But all the time, we the readers acutely understand why the people are behind the fence. We understand why Bruno can’t cross over to that side of the fence when he eventually meets another young boy named Shmuel from the other side. We understand why Shmuel doesn’t like the soldiers, why he is always so hungry, and why he is so frightened. And we understand what happens when he takes the march.

When the end of this book comes, it hurts even worse. I thought I knew the ending (it’s tragic Holocaust fiction, the ending shouldn’t be that hard to guess, right?) but I was dead wrong. It was so much worse.

Very rarely does a book completely blindside me to what is coming. Even rarer is when the book can make me realize my error at exactly the right moment to increase the emotional impact to its full potential. This is a book that did both of those things. This is also a dark book. This is a sad book. This book is a painful one. A story that is hard to read, because we know that things like this happened. And slowly, through the eyes of an ignorant, innocent nine-year-old, we understand anew just how bad people can become and just how dark a place the world we live in is.

That’s never a comfortable reality to be reminded of. But it’s a necessary one. I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Note: This book contains intensely unsettling thematic elements. While there is very little graphic imagery, the subjects dealt with are mature. Recommended for those 13 and up.