The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket – John Boyne

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Barnaby Brocket is unusual – very unusual indeed. His parents on the other hand, are normal – well, they are in their own view. In fact, his parents strive so hard to be normal that they are actually quite abnormal.

John Boyne’s new fable is a delightful whimsy about a boy who floats and the experiences which befall him following a cruel rejection by his parents.  Through Barnaby’s story Boyne explores most the theme of prejudice  against those/anything considered ‘different’ and in doing so, compels the reader to examine their own perceptions of ‘normality’.

Set in Sydney with quite convincing detail (the only jarring note an episode when the family dog chases a squirrel in the backyard – sorry, John, we don’t have squirrels in Australia), the story unfolds with examining Barnaby’s life till the age of eight, when he is rather horribly betrayed by his parents. Barnaby finds himself cast adrift quite literally, floating around the world and meeting all kinds of wonderful characters who also share the tragedy of rejection by those who should value them most – their families – simply because of their ‘differences’. The reader has ample time to reflect on the adage of not judging by looks alone, as these new friends of Barnaby’s demonstrate that character and compassion by far outweigh other attributes. Barnaby’s highly developed sense of compassion and sensitivity enable him to help these various characters  – Boyne’s deft touch avoids this becoming cloying sentiment and celebrates a triumph of indomitable spirit.

With a lovely twist, it becomes gradually clear that the unswerving ‘normality’ so carefully preserved by Barnaby’s parents was in itself once the subject of rifts between themselves and their own families.

With a definite touch of Roald Dahl’s eccentric players and scenarios, this book is a little hard to define – not least in terms of readership. There are some trickier concepts which some may prefer to confine to a more mature reader (e.g. same sex relationships, language, jokes). The inclination here is to recommend for readers 13+. All in all, this is a rather delightful and unusual book – this author continues to impress.

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