The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne
|The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: Once again this author looks at a reactive boy in Wartime Europe. Once again he comes up with something disturbingly vivid, utterly readable and appealing to audiences of all ages.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: October 2015|
|Publisher: Doubleday Children's Books|
|External links: Author's website|
Meet Pierrot. As a very young child in 1930s Paris he is going to have a very awkward journey through his young life. His father is a violent drunk, reacting badly to what he saw in WWI, and although married to a French woman, is still staunchly German. That woman, Emilie, is going to die, and leave Pierrot an orphan, which will leave him in a home where he is bullied. But from the reaches of Europe and from the black corners of his family comes an aunt, Beatrix, who will give him a home, of a kind, at a most unusual mountaintop building. It's not her home – she just works there and had to ask special permission from someone special. The place? The Berghof.
Make no mistake, this is definitely going to work as a companion piece to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, even if it is quite different – the changes to the boy's circumstances are almost as extreme but of a much different character, the book is less of a fable this time round but is equally readable, and the setting may have a strong connection but the end result is still its own thing. But for those who might have raised an eyebrow at Boyne going back to this era, and with another reactive young boy at the centre of the story, rest assured – there must have been countless difficult decisions in the creation of this book, and the Boyne-reverting-to-type issue must have been one of the lesser ones. This is a work that will disprove the idea of writing for the young as being simple once and for all.
And like all the best books for the age group, it is universally acceptable. Which does bring me to the point of how awkward it is, on this occasion more than most, to put myself in the shoes of the intended audience (more of which later) and see this from their point of view. I cannot trust they will recognise the name of the Berghof, and I don't know how quickly they will pick up on the identity of its special resident. Will they see the low-key ease with which the terminology of the time, and the stark, three-coloured decorations that get referred to now and again, are introduced as merits for what is a very subtle book?
I may even be reading more into it, placing subtlety where it doesn't exist. Still, for the first third I found some of the descent into evil quite alienating – the journey Pierrot takes is a long one, showing a whole continent full of bullying, nastiness and ill spirit, and it begins to lose a sense of realism. As for section three, without giving anything away, we get two incredible, powerful yet very different scenes, then a swoopingly bitty, rapid selection of changes, summaries and wrappings-up, which again felt a tiny bit counter-productive. I'll take it that everything is intentional, however, which means the entire second section, of Pierrot in his formative time at the Berghof, is intended to be read as the most realistic, the most measured, controlled and reasonable. And to make a scenario such as that read as an oasis of normality is just incredible in the first place.
Like I say, it might not be there, but I responded in that way. Several things here actually aren't on the page but you respond to them anyway – at least four times something happens to Pierrot that we get told about without it actually being spelled out what it is. The adult reader will know instantly, but the book proves how great the best writing can be when it comes to showing, not telling – revealing through the very act of obscuring. To repeat, there may well be more of a mystery to the intended reader – the smart teen who does not mind a much younger, more naïve lead character, and the upper end of what at least we here call confident readers. They – anyone, in fact – will find a tale of bullying much more realistic and less tagged-on than, say, Louis Sachar's 2015 story, Fuzzy Mud, a brilliant evocation of a singular state of mind and its causes, and a second look at Wartime Europe through virginal, unknowing eyes. Lightning can strike twice.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Catching Falling Stars by Karen McCombie will take you to a different wartime place, but be just as enjoyable.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne at Amazon.com.
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