Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

boy in the striped pajamas



I have a coworker who really, really dislikes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.
 This same coworker also disliked When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, so maybe we just agree to disagree on certain literary topics.  Which is very cool; lately I've been having "discussions" on Goodreads with people who refuse to see a viewpoint other than their own, and who cannot fathom how something offensive can, you know, offend people.

But back to the boy in the pajamas.  I thought it packed quite a punch for such a slim volume.  Although I guessed where the ending was going, it was still shocking to read.  Actually, what hit me the hardest was the scene early on where Adolf Hitler comes to eat at their house.  That is just ... incomprehensible to me.  That he may have acted like a human being on occasion, eating like humans do, talking like humans do.  It was surreal.

The thing with such an astounding TA-DA! type novel is that it's quite hard to follow up with another hit without everyone comparing it to the first book.  I know Boyne did an adult novel, but this spring he's releasing Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.  I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley and the publisher for review, so here we go!  All opinions are my own and were not influenced by the publisher in any way.
stay where you are and then leave

Alfie seems to live a pretty charmed life in his London suburb.  His dad is the local milkman, and his mum stays at home.  They love each other very much.  Their neighbors, while not perfect, get along quite well, and Alfie is particular friends with the daughter of a Czechoslovakian immigrant who owns a corner shop.  Then, World War I breaks out, and his charmed life ends abruptly.  The government takes the Czech neighbors, father and young daughter, to an internment camp on the Isle of Man.  Alfie's dad signs up to be a soldier and goes off to France, while Joe, their neighbor, is imprisoned for being a conscientious objector.

After four years of war, the family barely has food or money.  Alfie secretly works as a shoeshine boy in the train station while his mum is at work as a nurse.  He thinks that his dad is dead, going off of the vague answers given by his mum.  He also discovered a cache of his dad's letters from war, and they become increasingly incomprehensible before stopping abruptly.

A chance meeting and a gust of wind give Alfie information he'd never dreamed of.  His dad is alive, but in hospital outside of London.  Why did his mum lie?  Why hasn't his dad come home?  Alfie mounts first a reconnaissance mission, and then a rescue mission, to bring his dad home.

Put that way, it seems like a pretty simple story.  I actually wasn't particularly wowed by it.  I mean, it was well-written.  Alfie was intriguing: innocent and yet worldly at the same time.  Boyne doesn't skimp on the hardships endured by those in the UK during the war--outdoor toilet with ashes for the smell, anyone?  If pressed, I suppose I would say that the Big Problem addressed in this novel is "shell shock"--what we would call PTSD.  Boyne describes the hospital inmates in vivid detail, and it's really horrifying to think that while these men suffered from something no one had really seen before, politicians were out there encouraging yet more young men to sign up.  Women were publicly mocking men who refused to go to war for any reason, giving them white feathers to accuse them of cowardice.  Society turned upside down.

Yet, while being evocative, I didn't feel that the plot stood up to the material.  Neither did Alfie, really.  He didn't have the same magnetism as Bruno did.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas told a simple story as well, and yet it had a spark, something special that made it transcend simplicity and become something heartbreaking.  My heart didn't break with Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.  I certainly mused quite a bit, and I felt for Alfie and his family, but I didn't cry.  This is the kind of book that I rather would like to make me cry.

I also didn't particularly like how the third-person narration referred to Alfie's mum and dad by their first names--I had a really hard time keeping track of what was going on.

Overall, it was well done, but wasn't a home run for me.  I would have preferred a bit more complexity in the plot and with some of the characters, especially Alfie's mum and grandma, who had the potential to be extremely nuanced.

I'm petering out of things to say, and I've never been good at ending things so: This is the end of this post.

P.S. I didn't particularly like Oliver Jeffers as the choice of cover artist.  While I generally love Jeffers' work, it feels a bit too ... scribbly and haphazard for this story.  The inclusion of the field of poppies was, however, a very nice touch.

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