brocket“This is the story of Barnaby Brocket, and to understand Barnaby, first you have to understand his parents; two people who were so afraid of anyone who was different that they did a terrible thing that would have the most appalling consequences for everyone they loved.”

Recent readings seem to have all been a bit dark. Sure, they’ve been good books but after a while a long chain of horrible characters, vile settings and appalling situations makes a man snap. A book with “terrible” in the title might seem like an odd choice to go with next, but a friend of mine mentioned it a while ago and said it was really good. I trust her judgement, so I went for it, only being a little bit daunted by the fact that the author, John Boyne, also wrote The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which I haven’t read or seen but know to be immensely upsetting. So with only my friend’s word that this wasn’t going to be a horrible book, I pressed on.

The Brocket family are all perfectly normal. Alistair and Eleanor have no desire to stand out from the crowd or do anything that’s seen as unusual, an attitude they try to force into their first children, Henry and Melanie. But then Barnaby is born and their life is thrown into turmoil as Barnaby has a condition – he floats. Unable to obey the law of gravity, Barnaby is therefore constantly in danger of floating away. Alistair and Eleanor are horrified by what they see as a blantant act of attention seeking.

They do their best to hide Barnaby from the world, but eventually he has to go to school. After he accidentally gets his face into the newspapers, Alistair and Eleanor decide they have had enough and hatch a plan to rid themselves of their son and return to a normal life. Once free, Barnaby is confused by what has happened, but embarks on a series of adventures around the globe where he learns a thing or two about being normal.

Ultimately, it’s a novel for a younger audience, but that’s a rubbish way to judge any book, and there’s definitely plenty in here that narrow minded adults could learn from. On Barnaby’s journeys, everyone he meets tend to be people who are not considered “normal”, particularly by their families, and who have been cast out of their homes for whatever reason. Some of these are not normal because of appearance, or their dreams, but there is also a couple who are clearly lesbians (although not noted by Barnaby as explicitly being such), both cast out of their homes. The book does wonders for showing children (and, again, older people too) that normality is not strictly something you can define, as someone’s normal is abnormal to someone else.

Boyne has definitely taken from Roald Dahl with this novel, and it’s certainly got the feel of something that Dahl could have written. It’s in the way that Barnaby is a good child, if not slightly unusual, and he lives in a world where the “ordinary” grown-ups are of no use whatsoever. After a certain age, people’s imaginations dry up if not used properly, and this shows the damage that that can do to a family, as well as individuals themselves. It’s also very dark – Lemony Snicket came to mind repeatedly – given that Alistair and Eleanor are able to get rid of their son in the manner that they do.

The book is peppered with adorable little illustrations too, showing Barnaby both before and during his adventures, which add to the sweetness of the text. Barnaby is a wonderful boy who would be loved by any other family, but not by one who treats anything they aren’t used to as dangerous and bad. Barnaby actually notes at one point that in the books he reads, he identifies with orphans most of all. Sometimes it rings bells of Harry Potter living at the Dursleys. There is also a brilliant little nod to Harry Potter (is it just me, or has every book since 2005 made some mention or oblique reference to the series?) when Barnaby is stood on Platform 9 of a train station and his eyes glance over briefly to the gap between that one and Platform 10.

It’s a lovely book with a wonderful message that more people need to pay attention to. After all, if we can’t even define what normal is, why would anyone want to be it?