I went to hear John Boyne speak at this year’s Hay Festival because it was a special occasion, chaired by festival director Peter Florence himself, to re-visit this novel on its tenth birthday.
I love this book and I decided that I’d like to re-visit it with them.
The idea came to John one Tuesday and he wrote without stopping for four days and nights – kept awake by coffee - until he was forced out with friends to celebrate his birthday. Those four days gave him the essence of the novel, which he wrote and re-wrote over the next nine months with few changes to the story itself.
He felt that he’d written something very special, which is a wonderful feeling and doesn’t happen with every book, as authors know to their cost.
I didn’t know this, but the first review said that it was a novel of breath-taking vulgarity!
This comment took my breath away. John said he was crushed by it and began to doubt his work.
Usually a book reviewer will sum up the story. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m quoting the dust jacket on the first hardback copies: “The story is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think that it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year old boy called Bruno. And sooner or later, you will arrive with Bruno at a fence.”
I know that much of the criticism came from the book’s apparent concentration on a young, blond German boy, who seems to be more important than the thousands of Jews who died in the holocaust.
But I think that this is missing the point. So I’m going to applaud the book jacket again. It ends: “Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter such a fence.”
This book’s importance is in no doubt. At the end of the session, Peter Florence presented John with a special award: the novel has sold one million copies in the UK.
Well done, John Boyne. Your novel is on its way to becoming a classic in a world where fences such as the one that Bruno met are still being built, rather than being torn down.
Let us hope that if it is being read in a hundred years time – as a true classic – that readers will shake their heads in disbelief that such fences ever existed.
That is the true legacy of this wonderful book.
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