(Beware... long review on the way!)
This is one of those books that languished in the famous TBR, and would have remained there longer, if not for the fact that suddenly I began to see this title all over the blogosphere last month. And so I picked this one, already well aware of the debate around this book - something about a shocker happening at some point, a genuinely moving perspective vs an outrageously immature narrator. So, I should admit that some of my motivation to read this book was to find out what the whole debate was about, the same way you go to read a controversial article just to know what everyone in Twitter is ranting about. And that probably ended up coloring my reaction to this book as well, or maybe I might have still received the book in the same way. I wanted to review this one right after I read it, but eventually I decided to unconsciously or semi-consciously let my mind dwell on this book and figure out how exactly I felt.
Bruno, a German boy, returns home one day to find his maid, Maria packing his stuff. His mother explains that they are temporarily moving to another house, a fact that saddens Bruno heavily since he will miss all his friends and his big home with so many floors. His parents, his sister, Gretel (who Bruno considers a hopeless case), and their support staff move to their new, much smaller house. Bruno is very disappointed with his new place - especially the lack of friends and the fact that there's not much to explore around. That changes though when he finds a way out to the distant camp that he can see from his window, where he becomes friends with another boy named Shmuel.
Bruno is a nine-year old child. Except, he doesn't act it. He was too innocent for his age, which is fine, because isn't innocence a good thing? Probably, he is too naive and there are kids like that too. So I was fine with accepting that Bruno acts younger than his age, except that there are times he acts too old as well. And that's when it started bothering me. I couldn't make sense of him. Even quirkiness and eccentricity are character attributes, but in this case, it just wasn't that. I didn't feel that the author did a great job with his character. It appeared to me that Bruno was just a tool to move the story along and he behaves differently each time based on how the story should move.
When Bruno moves into his new home, he is very happy that he has a window in his room, but when he looks out through it, he sees a "farm" in the distance with thousands and thousands of people, all wearing the same pajama clothes. But when he asks his parents about it, they are very tight-lipped. His father talks in circles about humans vs non-humans, while his mother is very disapproving. I found it very hard to accept that the two parents who wanted to shield Bruno from the great tragedy outside, would give him the room that provides a free first class ticket to the camp and its inmates. When I watched this on the movie, the camp is shown to be really far away and the inmates inscrutable, which was far more sensible.
Bruno loves exploring. That's what he wants to do when he grows up. And so, he manages to leave his home under the eye of his family and the many soldiers in there, and go exploring, until he reaches the camp where Shmuel, a Jewish boy is sitting, unwatched by anyone. This is clearly the Auschwitz camp. It's never stated directly, but there are plenty of hints pointing in that direction. The two boys begin a hesitant friendship and continue meeting each other at the same place almost every day. It's pretty hard to believe that there is a section of the camp unmonitored by the guards and where the shocker happens.
I have to say - this is a case where I truly enjoyed the movie and didn't like the book at all. For one thing, Bruno acts more his age in the movie. Many of the loose ends are nicely patched in the movie, while in the book, they are left to interpretation and in at least one case, made very ambiguous. I quite enjoy books with open endings, so long as they are presented as meant-to-be-left-unsolved-by-the-author. I did find that a good thing in the book, because we see things through Bruno's eyes who doesn't understand a lot of it, but we try to put things together based on his observations.
In the next paragraph, I drop a spoiler BOMB, so if you plan to read the book some time, I would advise skipping the next paragraph. (I usually don't put up spoilers in my reviews, but in this one case, it was hard to discuss this book without mentioning it.)
The shocker - I saw it coming very early. Once I knew there was something going to happen, I couldn't imagine anything but that happening. It still felt very sad and disturbing. As I said, it felt very unbelievable that there was a section of the fence that was open, that the two boys kept meeting each other for days without anyone finding about it, and that Shmuel could easily get supplies for Bruno. Still, it's a story. And then Bruno manages to get in, and right at that point, there's a march called. This somehow didn't go with what I'd read about how those going to be killed were chosen. Still, it's possible that exceptions were made or the kids entered the wrong group. I thought the movie again handled this particular scene better - I was able to assume that the selection (of who's going to die) was made and then the boys entered the group before every one was taken to the chambers.
Definitely a lot of assumptions.
I would be lying though if I didn't say that I was moved by this book. Even if I found the plot highly manipulating and unbelievable, the elements that the author meant to tackle were well presented - especially that kids, who were just beginning to understand the world and who had a totally different lens through which they looked at others and made decisions - kids like Bruno and Shmuel - were still victims of the war in different ways. I appreciated how he showed that their rules for friends is so very different from an adult's. That actually took me back to my war-free school years, when I would have arguments with my parents on who can or cannot be my friend. I basically liked how he put an everyday child into one of history's most tragic event and showed how the child will still remain a child.
But... there's only so much suspending of belief that I can do.
Over the past few weeks, after seeing this book on many blogs, I've read plenty of varying viewpoints. It's a great thing that a book can be discussed this much and raise different sentiments in different people. I did try to accept that this was a book written for a young audience and maybe some tightening was needed. But then I read Number the Stars the very next week, and that made that assumption moot. Besides, I would even question whether this book can be grasped all that well by a young audience, because there are a lot of assumptions made and nothing is told straight - some knowledge of WW2 and the holocaust is needed.
I borrowed this book from the library and rented the movie from Netflix.