Two sides of John Boyne

October 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Stay_Where_You_Are_and_Then_LeaveDublin-born author John Boyne is most famous for the 2006 novel (and motion picture) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, an audacious work of young-adult fiction that addresses the fraught subject of the Holocaust. Among the book’s many honours are the Irish Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year, the Iowa Teen Book Award, and the Que Leer Award for Best International Novel of the Year. The book was also nominated for the British Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a testament to Boyne’s fearlessness as an author: he is willing to tackle subject matter that many novelists writing for adults assiduously avoid, and to do so in a way that does not condescend to his younger audience.

Boyne’s new work for children is a First World War novel called Stay Where You Are and Then Leave. The protagonist is nine-year-old Alfie Summerfield, who is celebrating his fifth birthday in London on the day that war breaks out. For young Alfie, his birthday party is “both a happy and sad memory” – happy because he is in the presence of his family and his best friend, Kalena Janacek; sad because the adults in the group are consumed by anxiety over the declaration of war. Alfie’s mother, Margie, elicits a promise from her husband, Georgie, not to enlist – a promise Georgie breaks the following day.

After Georgie is sent off to France, and Kalena and her father – who are Jews from Prague – are shipped away for being alleged German spies, Alfie steals the elder Janacek’s shoeshine box and travels to King’s Cross tube station, where he launches a lucrative business shining shoes.

Boyne paints a sobering picture of life during wartime: the depredations, the lack – of food, of money, of security – the constant worry about friends and relatives in jeopardy. When Georgie’s letters from overseas stop coming, Alfie becomes convinced his father has been killed in combat; a chance meeting at his shoeshine stand suggests he may be wrong about this, and he embarks on a journey to discover the truth.

Boyne depicts the horrors of combat through Georgie’s letters from the front, and takes readers on a voyage through a hospital for soldiers sent home suffering from shell shock. These scenes are filtered through the perspective of the book’s nine-year-old protagonist, which lends them an added level of unease due to the psychic distance the author employs. Alfie is highly intelligent, but he remains a young boy, and the things he encounters exist far outside his level of experience and maturity.

It is a cliché that war forces children to grow up too fast, but Boyne uses his hero as a mechanism for examining the various tolls the First World War – and by extension, war in general – exacted on those left behind. Younger readers will likely not comprehend every implication contained in the narrative, but this is immaterial: the book’s refusal to talk down to its audience is one of its most impressive features.

After reading Boyne’s take on the Holocaust and the First World War, it would be easy to assume that his imagination runs exclusively to heavy historical material. Such assumptions would be wrong.

Barnaby_BrocketBoyne’s 2012 novel, The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, complete with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, is a lively, whimsical story that puts the lie to the notion that Boyne is incapable of crafting lighter fare for young readers. Which is not to suggest that Barnaby Brocket is an insubstantial novel: quite the opposite. The book takes up a subject dear to many young readers’ hearts: the perils and triumphs of being different in a world that prizes conformity.

Born to parents who pride themselves on being unwaveringly normal, Barnaby has a congenital condition that proves challenging, to say the least. Barnaby floats. In the hospital delivery room, the doctors and Barnaby’s mother lose track of him the instant he emerges from the womb; they locate him hovering around the ceiling. “Barnaby Brocket, the third child of the most normal family who had ever lived in the Southern Hemisphere, was already proving himself to be anything but normal by refusing to obey the most fundamental rule of all. The law of gravity.” All this is accompanied by an illustration of the doctors and nurses, along with the new mother, in the delivery room, staring upward in astonishment.

Barnaby’s unusual ability becomes such a bone of contention for his doggedly conventional parents that one day his mother cuts him loose from the leash she attaches him to and allows him to float away into a new life. He is rescued by two elderly women in a hot-air balloon, whereupon he embarks on an adventure of discovery that takes him to various locations around the globe, not to mention outer space. (Okay, middle space.)

As with his more serious novels, Boyne does not pander to his audience. The two women piloting the hot-air balloon, Ethel and Marjorie, are a lesbian couple, though this is not stated explicitly. Boyne hints at their situation in asides, such as the one in which Barnaby ponders why the women are holding hands. The implication, however, is clear: Barnaby and the women are kindred spirits, in the sense that they are all on the outside of conventional society in one respect or another.

Boyne deploys a light touch in dealing with these themes and subjects, consistent with the overall humorous tone of the book, which is a stark contrast to the subject matter in Stay Where You Are and Then Leave and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The author’s versatility is admirable (he also writes novels for adults, the most recent of which deals with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church), and whether serious or lighthearted, his fiction for young people is characterized by an intelligence and a high-mindedness (in the best possible sense) that, in a literary genre sadly glutted with vampires, werewolves, and fantasy dystopias, is fabulously rare.

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I’ll be talking with John Boyne about his creative process as part of the 35th annual Harbourfront International Festival of Authors tomorrow at 12:00 p.m.