The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Doubleday Children’s
From Shakespeare’s Richard III to Citizen Kane, audiences and readers have shown that they are fascinated by tales of terrible people who rise in society by immoral means and who experience collapse and comeuppance in the end.
It may come as a surprise to some readers approaching The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain that John Boyne’s recent novel is written in this vein. Boyne has written many novels, both for children and adults, but it is his story of childhood’s innocence set amidst the horrors of Auschwitz, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, from which most readers would recognise him.
Despite its successes – the book was made into a critically acclaimed film starring Asa Butterfield and has become a school textbook – The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was a flawed text, with many critics pointing out the historical inaccuracies of the story and the implausibility of the main character’s innocence.
Nearly 10 years after the publication of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Boyne revisits the same era and premise, telling the story of a naïve boy living during the time when the Third Reich ruled Germany – but this time, he turns almost all of its tropes around in reverse.
Like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the central motif in The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain is the friendship between a boy of German heritage, Pierrot, and a Jewish boy named Anshel. Unlike The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the focus is not on the purity and innocence of their friendship but in the gradual corruption of Pierrot’s character as he ascends the ranks of Nazi society.
When Pierrot is orphaned, he is taken into the custody of his aunt, who serves as a maid in a house at the top of the mountains – a house that happens to be the Berghof, Hitler’s residence during World War II. Like Bruno, the main character in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Pierrot is innocent and sheltered from the full significance of the place that he is thrust into. Unlike Bruno, however, Pierrot’s innocence here is not a virtue.
As a boy living in the Berghof, Pierrot gains the attention – and the favour – of Hitler himself. His relationship with Hitler fills a void in Pierrot’s life, but it also corrupts him, resulting in him rising in social rank but at the expense of his moral virtues.
The title of the novel, The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain, may refer to not only his physical location but also his place in society: as a boy favoured by Hitler himself,
Pierrot is at the highest possible social strata in his community while devolving to the lowest in virtue and compassion. Eventually Pierrot has to make crucial moral decisions that may determine the life and death of people around him.
The development (or decline) of Pierrot’s character is always suspenseful: the reader will begin by rooting for him and hoping for his change, before wondering if Pierrot may indeed be unredeemable.
At the heart of it is a crucial question about complicity in the face of evil. Is naivete the same thing as innocence? Like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain ends with a powerful and thought-provoking plot twist that allows the reader to think about our moral decisions.
There are some problems that emerge with The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain, although they are relatively minor and may not be an issue to those who read the work as a standalone. The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain functions in the same fictional universe as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and Boyne attempts to use the former to address the issues of historical inaccuracy of the latter.
The fence in Auschwitz is now electrified, effectively nulling the plausibility of the story in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Perhaps Boyne felt that the gravity of Auschwitz demanded historical accuracy, even if the result is jarring discontinuity in his fictional universe.
Another thing worth noting is a scene involving attempted rape in The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain. The scene is handled well, without exploitation of the victim and without sentimentality about the perpetrator. With good guidance, it may even serve as a platform to generate discussion about sexual consent among teenagers, should the book have the same good fortune as its predecessor to be included in the British school curriculum. Nevertheless, some readers may prefer to be forewarned about this content.
The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain is exciting and thought-provoking. Adults familiar with the history of World War II will be fascinated by the story of an antihero’s rise and fall, whereas children reading the book will be able to use it as a trajectory to discover more about this crucial episode of world history.
The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain thus succeeds in much of the same way as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas does, while successfully standing on its own as a different book. It is an excellent novel.