Monday, 20 August 2012

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, by John Boyne

Barnaby Brocket has a problem. At least, his parents tell him he has a problem (well, to them its a problem). Ok, let’s face it: he’s just not normal - or not by their standards, anyway. Barnaby Brocket’s problem? He floats. Mr and Mrs Brocket just want to fit in, to not stand out, to be N-O-R-M-A-L, and Barnaby’s insistence on floating is causing havoc in their lives. For a start, people are noticing and surely people will soon begin to talk, and this is not what Mr and Mrs Brocket want. They want to be normal. But then, what exactly is ‘normal’?

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket is not so much a story about the terrible thing that happened to him as it is a story about what happens after the Terrible Thing happened. It is a Terrible Thing, but it leads to an amazing adventure and to meeting lots of different people - people who some (Barnaby’s parents, for instance) might consider to not be entirely normal. Along the way Barnaby discovers that ‘normal’ is just an idea, and that it’s not only perfectly okay to not be ‘normal’, but that it’s usually a lot more fun too.

“ ‘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.’ [said Marjorie] 
‘Quite right Marjorie,’ said Ethel. ‘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. ‘I know I don’t.’ ” (pg. 92)

This is a very simple story and a very simple idea told absolutely beautifully. John Boyne has woven one concept - what is ‘normal’? - into a dozen different threads, presenting the idea in several different forms that repeats his message without actually, well, repeating himself. Each character reveals a childhood where parents have tried to make their children in their own image, to make them fit within the borders of their idea of an ideal life, only to reject their children when they try to step outside of those walls. Ironically, even Barnaby’s own mum and dad chose a different pathway to the one their parents tried to push them down, and I spent much of the book wondering whether or not Mr and Mrs Brocket would realise the extent of their hypocrisy by the end. Will they learn to accept their child as an individual or will they still try to change him? And what will Barnaby choose? Is it more important to him to accept who he is or to be accepted by his parents?

I hadn’t really intended to read this book, but I picked it up for a peek and then couldn’t put it down. It’s got to be one of my favourites for this age range (9-12) so far this year, though any adult is likely to find it as equally enjoyable as their youngster. In places it reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda - the child who is so much smarter and more aware of the world than the parent is.

“And who was to say that he wasn’t the one who wasn’t normal anyway...” [Barnaby asks] “Was it even normal to want to be so, well, normal all the time?” (pg. 273).

It is brilliant, full of humour and lightness. Even when Barnaby finds himself in potentially scary situations - and is himself quite scared - he remains calm, accepting that he is where he is and that he can’t do much about it. I was nervous for him, but, somehow, he never got all that nervous for himself. Watch out for a lovely Harry Potter reference, enjoy the Oliver Jeffers illustrations, and - if you’ll forgive the pun - float away for the afternoon.

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