The One Book Project is a local literacy drive being promoted by Northern Ireland libraries. They’re encouraging as people to read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and then talk or write about what they’ve read.
There’s a secondary objective:
- to raise awareness of the role of libraries and reading in addressing controversial issues in a 'neutral' environment with the objective of increasing awareness of difference and promoting tolerance.
I’d noticed the One Book Project posters and leaflets in Ballyhackamore’s library one Saturday morning when I was in perusing the toddler section for bedtime stories. I joked the librarian at the desk that my three year old daughter would be lucky to leave the library without a copy under her arm! About five minutes later the librarian walked across and presented me with a copy saying that it wasn’t just for children.
It’s not a long book, and you could finish it in a couple of hours. Without wanting to sound like a Simon Mayo Book Panel, the book’s cover is unusually plain in that it has blue stripes (in nearly every English and international edition) and a simple message on the back:
“Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, 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.
If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old-boy called 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 cross such a fence.”
So if you plan to read the book, stop reading now. I’m glad I approached it knowing nothing about the story. It allowed the book to paint its picture on a blank cranial canvas, rather than one with the story already partly sketched out.
Basically, we follow a boy called Bruno. He’s living a happy life in Berlin, before his Father’s job means the family have to move to another place, and a new house. Aged nine, Bruno is understandably naïve in his outlook, and doesn’t have the benefit of historical hindsight (that some readers) will enjoy to piece together the situation over the fence beside his new home.
The relationships between the characters are beautifully developed throughout the book. Father is a military man who gives and obeys orders and expects loyalty to his causes and beliefs. Mother is much more liberal and free-thinking. She comments early on, before they even left Berlin:
“We don’t have the luxury of thinking ... Some people make all the decisions for us.”
Bruno also engages with the household servants: Maria and Pavel (who patches up Bruno’s knee when he falls off a swing, but can’t take the credit for it). Each is living on a knife-edge, insecure in their position in the house and/or society.
But Shmuel is the real eye-opener in the novel’s cast. Sharing a birthday with Bruno, he offers an insight into an altogether different parallel universe over on the other side of the fence. The contrast of conditions and expectations is great - as is the boys’ friendship.
I found the book’s reliance on puns (in this case pronunciation of English words rather than German ones) unexpected – given that the characters in real life would have been speaking German. It’s a device that worked really well, but still jarred with me right the way through the book. Though coming to the book cold without already knowing the plot or locations, this playing with words successfully helped to blur the story’s direction for the first few chapters, leaving me to figure out the cryptic phrases:
“we should never have let the Fury come to dinner”
“we’re here at Out-With because someone said out with the people before us?”
Wonder what happens when the book’s translated into other languages?
The last couple of chapters bring the book to a startling and gut-wrenching conclusion. They’re the award winning chapters. The ones that take this from being a book aimed at young teens to a title that deserves a much wider read. Chapters that made me wonder about the fences I encounter in work, in church, in Northern Ireland society. Perhaps fences that I erect myself? Do I try to communicate with the Shmuels sitting on the other side? Or do I allow the parallel universes to continue to exist in ghettos I won’t approach?
So get down to your local library – assuming it hasn’t already been closed – and borrow a copy. Failing that, Amazon are flogging them for £4.84
Published in 2006, the novel has been adapted into a film, shot in Budapest during 2007, and scheduled to hit UK cinema screens in June 2008 (though it’ll be released in Spain from 29 February).