John Boyne is one of Ireland’s most versatile, prolific and hard working writers. His latest novel for adults, A History of Loneliness which examines child abuse in the Catholic Church was widely praised for its candour, and he recently published Beneath the Fire, a collection of short stories, again for adults. Add to the mix his new children’s book, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain and we begin to wonder if there are in fact two John Boynes.
Boyne became an international name after the publication of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which has won countless awards and was also made into a successful movie. Set in Auschwitz, it’s the story of nine year old Bruno, the son of a German officer and his burgeoning friendship with Shmuel, a boy literally from the other side of the fence.
The same German officer and his family also appear briefly in The Boy at the Top of the Mountain. Set once again during World War II, the hero (or anti-hero) of Boyne’s new book is Pierrot, a young boy living in Paris with a French mother and a (deceased) German father. His best friend is Ansel, a young Jewish boy with a gift for writing. When his mother dies, after a short spell in an orphanage, Pierrot is sent to live with his aunt, a housekeeper at the Berghof, Hitler’s infamous mountain-top residence in the Bavarian Alps.
Pierrot, now renamed Pieter by his aunt to keep him safe, becomes obsessed by Hitler who takes him under his wing and, twisted by the man’s philosophies and impressed by his power, the once sweet, innocent boy learns to hate. Pierrot’s rapid transformation from kind eight year old to cruel Hitlerjugend, happy to betray all those close to him, is chilling.
Boyne ends the novel in a poignant, hopeful manner but it does not dispel the sense of darkness that hangs over the reader. But as this is a book about warped egos, evil and manipulation could it be any other way? This powerful, unsettling novel is a must read for older children (11+) and adults.
Sarah Webb’s latest book for children is Sunny Days and Mooncakes (Walker Books).