CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 26. . . .March 13, 2015
The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket.
John Boyne. Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2015.
277 pp., trade pbk. & ebook, $12.99 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-0-385-67892-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-385-67891-9 (ebook).
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
"She sent me away because she said I wasn't normal."
For the first time, both ladies were silent; they stared at Barnaby, then at each other, before looking back at the boy.
"Do you know," said Ethel, more quietly now, "forty years ago my mother told me that I wasn't normal either and threw me out of the house. I never saw her again. She wouldn't take my calls, refused to reply to any of my letters. It was a terrible thing."
"My father said much the same thing to me," added Marjorie. "Closed the door in my face forever."
"But I don't understand," said Barnaby. "You seems perfectly normal to me. You don't look any different from the old ladies who live on our street."
"Less of the old, you little brat, or we'll toss you overboard," said Marjorie, glaring at him but then bursting into an extraordinary laugh, her whole body shaking, as if someone was tickling her all over.
"Don't, Marjorie," said Ethel, giggling too. "The poor boy will think you're serious."
"Oh nonsense," insisted Marjorie. "I haven't been serious since nineteen eighty-two. I wouldn't throw you overboard, young man. Don't worry."
"Thank you," said Barnaby, relieved.
"Anyway the point is, just because your version of normal isn't the same as someone else’s version doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you."
"Quite right, Marjorie," said Ethel, nodding fiercely. "If I'd listened to my mother when she said there was something wrong with me, I'd have lived a very lonely life.
"And if I'd listened to my father, I'd have been miserable."
"Who wants to be normal anyway?" cried Ethel, throwing her arms in the air. "I know I don't."
"But if I had been normal, then my parents wouldn't have sent me away," said Barnaby. "I'd still be at home with Henry, Melanie, and Captain W. E. Johns."
"What are they - cats?"
"Henry's my eldest brother," explained Barnaby. "And Melanie's my eldest sister."
"And Captain W. E. Johns?"
Neither Ethel nor Marjorie had any answer to this so they said nothing, simply shook their heads and continued to steer the hot-air balloon in the general direction of South America.
Barnaby Brocket floats to the ceiling of the delivery room when he is born in Sydney, Australia, much to the chagrin of his conformist parents. Years later, he is still afloat, and his parents are annoyed and ashamed. For a long time he isn't allowed outside because "what would the neighbors say?" When he is sent to school, it is the worst school in town where the kids don't learn a thing and Barnaby almost burns to death. Finally, when Barnaby is eight, the terrible thing happens. His mother untethers him and allows him to float into the sky. Barnaby's adventures begin when he is taken in by two ladies in a hot air balloon. He travels to a coffee farm in Brazil, the art world of Manhattan, a Canadian football game, a space station and the highest bungee jump in the world. He is kidnapped, makes new friends and finds old ones. In each location, he learns a lesson about being different and remaining true to yourself. He returns home a celebrity, and his parents are not pleased. When he realizes that his parents can never love who he is, Barnaby heads for the sky once more.
The novel has a clear point to make, and Boyne hammers it home again and again. Some people cannot accept other people who are different, but they are wrong, the book tells us. This obvious repetition is intended to be humourous, but it's actually pretty tiresome. The first few chapters were almost intolerable (as we were told constantly that Barnaby's parents believed his difference to be the result of stubbornness), but once Barnaby's adventures begin, the ridiculousness of the capers becomes very enjoyable. So this didacticism is an element which can be overlooked in an otherwise fairly enjoyable novel. The topic is, of course, a worthy one, and the book makes a serious statement about conformity. But we get the point right away and don't need to be told what to think quite as often as Boyne insists on telling us. However, in stressing the need to be true to oneself and discover one's truest and best 'me', this and many current stories ignore the importance of other values like community and service. In a time when the benefit of self-actualization is undisputed, brave artists might consider tackling stories when fitting in or subsuming your needs to another person might be necessary.
The villains of this novel are Barnaby's parents, pathologically attached to the concept of normality. It was a disappointment to later get an explanation for the Brockets' terrible behaviour. Barnaby's dad was forced to act when he was a child and his mother was forced to participate in pageants. Both hated the attention and vowed to be totally unnoticed and unremarked upon for the rest of their lives. While this does explain a thing or two, I preferred the pure evil of their casual disdain for Barnaby. These revelations come when they feel regret for casting Barnaby out on the occasions that they receive postcards from him. However, the parents are exactly the same when Barnaby returns. Why redeem them slightly if they are to have no character development at all? It is bold though that Boyne makes these respectable middle class parents who seem so responsible to actually be cruel monsters. There is also a strong theme that it is precisely people who just do what everyone else does without thinking who are the worst and most dangerous people. Barnaby tells everyone along the way the truth about the terrible thing that happened to him, rather than keeping his parents' great betrayal a secret. It was refreshing to have no secrets. And, of course, everyone is shocked, as they should be.
Barnaby is always determined to get home. He believes Sydney to be the greatest city on earth, and he also believes that his parents will regret their terrible decision. Many of the other people he meets have been renounced by their families and can never go home. Why would Barnaby want to return to people who had done such a terrible thing, they ask him. Well, Barnaby only has one family, and he wants to make it work. Family is important, and he loves his brother and sister and misses his loyal dog. It is interesting that Barnaby believes family has an intrinsic value even when family is abusive. He's an eight-year-old kid though, so where else would he go? He believes the best of them, but when confronted with their inability to accept him, he is ready to face the world alone knowing that he has many friends.
I very much like the style which has elements of fairy tales and fables. It includes all kinds of jokes (some a bit too insidery) and events which are not meant to be taken literally. Barnaby falls asleep and days pass. Mishaps ensue. Fans of fantastic and fabulist literature like that of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket will like this and find plenty of topics for discussion. Barnaby is a fun and likable hero, and, even though there are perhaps too many episodes, the book moves along at a nice pace, especially after the first six chapters.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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