It’s sort of been a summer of follow-ups. It started with the new Brian Selznick book and now it’s ended with Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne. Because seriously, there is not really anywhere to go after this one.
John Boyne is probably best known for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, his 2006 novel that was eventually adapted into a movie with a cast that seemed to be culled almost exclusively from the Harry Potter movies. It was one of those books that did everything: it worked on several levels, it told a compelling but simple story, and it appealed to a really large audience while also being something that could totally could be used for a novel study in grade school. I think one thing that really appealed about it is it reads a little bit like a fable, something that Boyne is definitely interested in exploring in Noah Barleywater.
So, Noah Barleywater was another book I was able to pick up recently and I was feeling pretty excited about it. I mean, “John Boyne! Boy in the Striped Pajamas! Something very interesting is going to happen!” The title very much does a nice little synopsis of the novel: Noah Barleywater, unable to deal with the problems he has at home, decides to run away. The further he gets from home, the more people, creatures, and beings he meets as he moves from village to village. They impart some wisdom and perspective, but mostly, they just sort of serve as these kind of annoying stop points that punctuate his journey. Like, “Ohhhh, I’m a donkey, let me tell you something about life,” or “Ohhhh, I’m a tree, listen to my wisdom.”
Boyne plays into the fable form by writing in a similar style. It’s a little straightforward and a little old-fashioned and a little timeless with Boyne throwing in words like “chap” and phrases along the lines of “a stroke of good luck.” And then there’s the reliance on the story of Pinocchio that sort of comes in at the end, something that kind of reminded me of William S. Burroughs and his cut-up technique where he'd take this linear narrative and cut it all apart to make it read in a new way. Maybe Boyne’s first draft had all of the Pinocchio stuff nicely arranged throughout and then he thought, “Cut-up technique! Do it now!” so that what happens now is the Pinocchio story just sort of…appears. The contemporary and the traditional don’t really overlap or flow together. Instead, they just stay at odds with one another throughout the novel and flip back and forth between different temporalities of time. Boyne’s protagonist Noah makes this idea of trying to pinpoint a setting and time period for this novel even more difficult because his age is not consistently represented. At times Noah seems a little like a child prodigy – he lists out the achievements he’s made by the age of eight and then deems them pretty unworthy for his age – and then other times he seems completely unaware of his situation and appears much younger than the age of eight.
But what really threw me in this book was the representation of Noah’s mother. In a book that is geared towards younger readers, Boyne writes a pretty misogynistic description of one of the only female characters (other than a teacher Noah hates) that Boyne includes. Noah expresses his hatred for his mother fairly continuously throughout the book, and Boyne later reveals that it is her terminal illness that has driven Noah from the house since he is unable to deal with the changes to his mother. Which, you know, a lot of adolescent and young adult literature has some parental contempt going on, but this kind of takes that and makes it into the unmitigated hatred an eight-year-old has for his mother. It’s something that I recognized a little in another recently released book, When Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, which sort of does a terrible job with representing female characters as well while bordering a little bit on misogyny. For two books that were published within the same timeline, it seems like an unfortunate pattern to occur.
You know what? I was just going to go ahead and recommend this graphic novel called I Kill Giants. It’s a little bit similar to Noah Barleywater and it kind of rectifies everything that I’ve talked about in this review like, “Oh hey! Read me! Look at this! I’m awesome!” and it would make kind of a positive end to this review. Because, I mean, the key difference between I Kill Giants and Noah Barleywater is that Giants is actually good. More than that, it does a lot of what Noah Barleywater might have been trying to do, but I Kill Giants actually succeeds. So instead of a recommendation, I’ll do that one next. It’s really kind of amazing.