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Review: The Terrible Thing that happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

Barnaby Brocket-2

I started reading Barnaby Brocket with very little expectation; surprising really, as I had read the author’s most well known children’s story, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, several years ago and found it an incredibly powerful, moving book. Barnaby Brocket, however, has just sat on the bookshop shelves and has not sold very well for me. Having not read it I haven’t felt particularly able to recommend it and it has languished forlornly in the children’s section.

So I suppose I felt sorry for it (this happens sometimes; I’m sure I’m not the only bibliophile to suffer from this affliction?) and it ended up in my ‘to read’ stack.

From the outside the book has two things to immediately recommend it: First, John Boyne – already mentioned for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas acclaim; and second, Oliver Jeffers – one of my all time favourite children’s book illustrators. (Aside: there will definitely be some future posts about Oliver Jeffers and his wonderful picture book creations).

The novel opens with Barnaby’s arrival into the world. Now, depending on the age of the reader, I thought this was unnecessarily detailed. Don’t worry, it’s still okay for a young reader, and younger children will tend to gloss over anything they do not understand, but I didn’t think it was necessary to even mention the screaming, perspiring, groaning, wailing and pushing. It isn’t mentioned in any detail but it could have been presented as fait accompli, hey presto, baby arrived.

From then on in I really enjoyed the book. Barnaby is born with an unusual characteristic – he floats. He literally cannot keep his feet on the ground without the aid of weights or a leash to keep him down. His parents are appalled by this condition. Both parents have spent the whole of their adult lives avoiding anything that would draw attention to themselves, leading a plain, what they consider normal, existence. They hate the thought of standing out from the crowd or appearing ‘different’ in any way. Barnaby’s condition does  not seem to be curable so his father, Alistair, affixes matresses to the ceilings and Barnaby is mostly kept indoors for the first few years of his life, so as not to cause embarrassment to his parents. When he’s old enough he is packed off to a dreadful institution that passes itself off as a school. His parents can’t bear the thought of him going to the local primary with his brother and sister – the comments, the pointing, the attention; oh no, that won’t do, so Barnaby goes to a school for ‘misfits’.

Due to a bit of a calamity at the aforementioned institution, he later has to join the local school where, after his condition is exposed on the TV on a school outing, Barnaby becomes something of a local celebrity. This is the final straw for Barnaby’s mother and she decides to act on a terrible thought that occurred to her the day she brought baby Baranby home from the hospital all those years ago… She decides to let him go, to float away…

Barnaby has some fantastic adventures. He misses his family dreadfully and is always trying to return home, despite what his parents have done; he loves them and he hopes that they will miss him and come to accept him the way he is.

‘Because they’re my family,’ said Barnaby with a shrug.

‘But they didn’t want you.’

‘But they’re still my family,’ repeated Barnaby, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘And it’s not like I’m ever going to have another mum and dad, is it?’

On his travels Barnaby meets all sorts of other extraordinary people; people who are all a bit ‘different’. There are the two older ladies who live together and hold hands, the young pregnant girl whose father won’t speak to her, the artist whose wealthy parents have cast him out penniless for wanting to be an artist rather than a businessman, and then other children with characteristics that mark them out as different from other people.

This is a really good story about being different, about being unique and more importantly about being yourself. A warm, humorous and often funny novel. I would recommend it for readers aged 9+ though younger readers might enjoy it too.

About the Author

John Boyne was born in 1971 and is an Irish novelist, author of 9 novels for adults and 5 for children, including the runaway bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Other novels include The Absolutist and A History of Loneliness for adults and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave and The Boy at the Top of the Mountain for children.

Where to Buy

You can buy The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket from your local independent bookshop, or you can buy online from hive.co.uk and still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local, where possible, to help keep your High Streets alive. The current RRP for a new paperback is £6.99, ISBN no 9780552565769. Published by Random House Children’s Books in 2012.

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