The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett
London, Random House, 2012, 278p
An undoubtedly brilliant and strange novel, exploring the value of otherness. John Boyne is a beautiful writer, creating an unusual young boy in Barnaby Brockett, and taking us on an adventure all over the world and out into middle space
The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett is a tale about a young boy who does not fit into his perfectly normal family. His parents pride themselves on fitting in, having obedient, intelligent children and a dog of "indeterminate breed and parentage". That is, until Barnaby comes along - a boy who defies the rules of gravity. Barnaby floats.
Barnaby's parents are incredibly preoccupied with the fact that their son is not normal. They are convinced that he needs different schooling, that he will scare people in the street, that he will bring shame on the family. As a result, they neglect to notice that very few people are bothered, and most people who meet Barnaby like him regardless of his inability to keep his feet on the ground.
One disastrous afternoon, Barnaby finds himself floating off into the sky - his bag full of sand, usually able to keep him on the ground, is fast emptying. He drifts up and up, unsure where he is going, until he bumps his head on the basket of a hot air balloon. He is helped aboard, and meets two old women bound for Brazil, unable to turn back. Barnaby goes with them, beginning a journey that takes him all over the world, introducing him to wonderful people and great cities.
Many of the people Barnaby meets are just like him - they are not normal. The two old ladies did not fit in at home, so ran away from their parents. Others have been disowned, deemed failures or abnormal. He even meets a band of people trapped in a circus, kidnapped because they are different, put on display for entertainment. But each of these people seem happy to be "not normal". They make Barnaby feel at home, and he starts to wonder what normal really is.
This novel is all about acceptance. Happiness is more important than being normal, whatever that is. It is a great adventure story, which, despite being about a boy who floats, feels strangely realistic. If reading is about escaping the everyday and broadening the mind, this is the perfect story.