Vive La Différence – ‘The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket’ by John Boyne

‘The Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket’, is a fable made in the mould of Roald Dahl. Barnaby is a perfectly pleasant child with deeply unpleasant parents. Their meanness sets Barnaby on an epic journey of self-discovery. The moral of the story – it’s okay to be different.

Barnaby’s parents spend their entire lives trying to be normal. They work in an office, where they are neat tidy and uncomplaining. They do nothing to draw attention to themselves and find those who do vulgar. Their first two children are wonderfully normal. Barnaby their third, is not. He disobeys the laws of gravity, floating off unless tied down.

Boyne’s prose is whimsical, his story surreal. It’s entertaining but serious, scary yet safe. Barnaby’s parents cannot cope with his condition, and prevent Barnaby from leaving the house. When it’s time to send Barnaby to school, instead of sending him to the local school with his siblings, they pack him off to the school from Matilda (which Boyne appears to have imported wholesale.)

When Barnaby inadvertently gains fame and notoriety, his parents lose the plot completely and simply let him go. The adventures begin. Barnaby embarks on a crazy journey across the globe, careering from one caper to the next. Pretty much every episode in the book contains somebody who has been ostracised for not being normal; for not conforming to their parents wishes. There are two things to be drawn from the book. For children, be who you want to be. For parents this is a cautionary tale; don’t make your children in your own image.

The message is repeated too often and over-simplified to work as true cross-over fiction. It is simply an entertaining children’s story. Large parts of the novel are set in Australia, predominantly Sydney, which may make the story less accessible for UK readers. I think it could have been set somewhere non-specific, without losing anything. Indeed, I think Boyne overuses place names in the setting of his scenes. Talking about The Rocks, Kirribilli & Circular Quay, is wonderfully evocative if you been there, but without context, loses something if you haven’t.

Still, this is a minor gripe because like Dahl, Boyne has written a yarn that will delight his readers. Barnaby is a likeable character, whose scrapes draw you along at breakneck speed. The pace never flags, and it’s surprising the number of ways in which you can be expected to conform. My initial impression of the end was that it was unsatisfactory, but on further reflection, it is an appropriate one. Whilst Boyne doesn’t deliver the happy ending we might have wanted, to do so would have undermined the book’s message. Congratulations to Mr Boyne for not taking the popular path. An excellent gift for your nieces and nephews, I can see Barnaby Brocket being popular with young readers for many years to come.


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