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  • Published 21.04.06

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS By John Boyne, David Fickling, ?10.99

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas will make you wonder. The dust jacket claims that the story is ?very difficult to describe?, and the publisher will not divulge details, since it would ?spoil? the experience of reading. It?s just as well that you?re kept in the dark, or you might resist the temptation of reading this ?fable? by John Boyne.

A few pages into the book, you wonder whether you should have taken at face value the publisher?s claim of the story not being ?for nine-year-olds?. Bruno, the protagonist-narrator, should have alerted you, if the prose ? quintessential Enid Blyton ? did not. For when this wimpy, one-dimensional nine-year-old Goody-Two-Shoes isn?t setting your teeth on edge, he?s making you pine for the endearingly flawed child narrators who won your heart long ago.

Now for the plot: Bruno is unhappy about his family moving from their home in Berlin to a place called Out-With, where his father has been appointed Commandant by the Fury. Once there, he discovers a field enclosed by barbed wire that fences off people in striped pajamas and tops, quite unlike the uniforms worn by his father and his deputies. Out on a stroll, Bruno comes across sad little Shmuel, wearing just such pajamas and an armband with a star-shaped emblem, sitting on the other side of the fence. They get chatting, and Shmuel informs Bruno that they are near Cracow, Poland, and not in Germany as the latter had assumed.

No doubts remain that the story is set in the grim heart of the Holocaust. Blissfully unaware of reality, the two boys continue to meet, with nary a guard in sight. Then, keen on exploring ?the other side?, Bruno manages to roll under the precise point in the fencing where the barbed wire is conveniently loose. The author strains the reader?s credulity even farther by arranging for Shmuel to bring his friend a set of striped pajamas pilfered from the camp?s stocks, so that he can move around the place incognito.

The work comes from a division of Random House Children?s Books. That hardly justifies the deliberately simplistic presentation and the lack of respect for reality. You also wonder if the writer isn?t being patronizing in underestimating the general knowledge and intelligence of his target readers. If he isn?t, then the entire premise about the intended readers? average age is compromised and the following questions crop up: how many readers below the age of nine would know enough about Auschwitz, swastika and the Star of David to be able to understand their import in the scheme of the story? And is its tragic finale really suitable for them? This book is, apparently, Boyne?s first offering for younger readers, and it shows.