While this is not a complex book, it deals confidently with complex issues.
The opening clearly establishes the relationship between Pierrot and his deaf Jewish friend – a relationship that will become highly significant later in the novel. When young Pierrot’s parents both die he is sent to an orphanage and we start to get a sense of what was happening in the background of the time. Slowly, we are immersed in a world where the rights of a group of people were eroded piece by piece.
As with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, seeing this world through the eyes of a child makes it more horrific. Initially I found the character of Pierrot more likeable than Bruno; this is why what happens subsequently is more chilling.
The discovery that Pierrot has an aunt who is willing to look after him seems a good thing. Following him on his journey we witness snapshots of the changing attitudes in Germany. These do not make for comfortable reading, though I wonder whether the significance of the events will be apparent to younger readers. When Pierrot arrives at the home where his aunt is housekeeper we think he will be safe. Sadly, the master of the house is Adolf Hitler and what we have to witness is the gradual erosion of the moral compass of this young boy.
Pieter (as he becomes known) comes to worship Herr Hitler and we watch helplessly as he is drawn into a world so different to the one his family envisaged for him. His betrayal of his aunt was a truly horrific scene to read, and the actions of Hitler leave us in no doubt that what we are witnessing is the destruction of innocence in one man’s pursuit of glory. Pieter becomes a character that is so twisted by the values/beliefs of those around him that he is quite repellent at stages. Ultimately, he is still a child at the close of the novel and Boyne is careful to make clear that while Pieter has committed some unspeakable acts he is very much a product of his environment, and not beyond salvation.
For me the most poignant moment came after Hitler’s death when Herta leaves and speaks to Pieter of what will happen now: “you have many years ahead of you to come to terms with your complicity in these matters. Just don’t ever tell yourself that you didn’t know…That would be the worst crime of all.”
Reading about such a subject is not, and nor can it be, pleasant, but I feel this is a book that deserves to be read.