Told through the eyes of 9 year old Bruno, who is growing up in Berlin during WWII, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is simple in style but devastating in subject matter.
Bruno’s father, a rather cold, intimidating figure, is clearly something high up in the SS, and one day after ‘The Fury’ comes for dinner, he is given a significant promotion which means the family, to Bruno’s dismay, are forced to move to ‘Out-With’. Although their new house is lovely, Bruno can’t help but be a little unsettled by the view from his window. Behind a huge wire fence, he can see hundreds of people, many of them children, all wearing the same outfit – striped pyjamas. As he begins to explore his new surroundings, he meets a boy named Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the fence, and they begin to make friends.
Although Bruno is fairly likeable, if a bit dull, his naïveté about what is happening in the camp is a little unbelievable. He is constantly saying things to Shmuel things like ‘why do you always wear those pyjamas?’ or ‘it’s so unfair that you have all those people to play with and I’m stuck on this side of the fence all by myself.’ Bruno is young, but it seems ridiculous that the son of an SS officer wouldn’t know what a Jew was, or have any idea why all those people were in the camp. Sometimes the things he says to Shmuel make you cringe, especially because Bruno is fairly condescending anyway.
Bruno and Shmuel share a birthday and are exactly the same age, which I suppose is a crude but effective way of making the point that the only difference between them is the circumstances of their birth. The notion is a little clichéd, but because of the sensitive, emotionally charged subject matter it still affects the reader. It makes it so easy to imagine that were you born in the 1930s, you could just as easily have been Shmuel as Bruno. I think many people have probably wondered whether if they had been born at the time, they would have done anything to stop the atrocities that were happening, but it’s more difficult to imagine yourself as one of the people sent to a concentration camp and worked to death.
I found this an easy read – the narrative being in a 9 year old’s voice made it simple and quick to skim through, and it was easy to pick up on what was really going on when Bruno’s limited understanding left him confused. The ending is definitely emotional, but I didn’t feel like it really stayed with me like other similar stories (such as that of Anne Frank) did.