Sunday 23 July 2017

Review: Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne

David Fickling Books, €12.50

There's something different about John Boyne. He seems more relaxed and a lot more fun than I remember him from the last time we met, nearly two years ago.

He says it's the difference between releasing a children's book and an adult book. His latest, Noah Barleywater Runs Away, sees him return to children's fiction for the first time since his bestselling The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and already it has been nominated for an Irish Children's Book Award.

"When I bring out an adult book I have an anxiety that it's not going to be appreciated; or something that I've worked so hard on will be dismissed." Some of the responses to his last adult novel, The House Of Special Purpose, were, he says, "upsetting".

He knows he might sound defensive, or worse, "whiney", and he doesn't want to; he's aware of how fortunate he is but he can't help but notice a difference between how he is reviewed in Ireland and internationally.

"I did feel there was a 'let's take him down a peg or two' after the movie and the book [of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas]. There were certainly some reviews which were so aggressive and personal and focused on issues of historical accuracy. I will always maintain when you are writing a work of fiction you do not have an obligation to stick to every single fact and often people will think you just got it wrong, you don't know your stuff. With The House Of Special Purpose I knew my stuff inside out. I wrote the bloody book in St Petersburg," he says, exasperated.

You can understand why re-entering the world of children's fiction feels more pleasant. His latest book tells the story of Noah Barleywater, who is running away from bad news at home and finds himself in a strange toy shop run by an old man.

It sounds serious but it has a lot of humour too. Like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas before it, Noah Barleywater Runs Away deals with some heavy issues. "The best thing about The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was I was talking to children about something that really mattered. I wasn't going around talking about vampires. I was talking about something important. I thought if I'm going to do this again it's got to be something important."

Once more, he has chosen a young boy as his protagonist. "I'm interested in that period of childhood. It's at the point where a child wants to be more grown up but it doesn't bring in the complications of puberty."

What was he like at that age? "I was a ridiculously happy kid. Everyone says I was always the happy one, the one making jokes, there was four of us but I was the comedian in the family and I was never down about anything. I was fun, I think. I liked that age. When I was a teenager I was a miserable bastard. I snapped out of it when I got to about 35," he laughs.

Does he ever worry that he might be a better children's writer than adult writer? "No, I don't think I am. I think with the last book and this book and what's coming next I feel I'm working at the best of my abilities. However talented I am, I'm playing at the top of my own game. I'm going to turn 40 in about six months and I published my first book exactly 10 years ago and I feel like I can look back at the decade when I turn 40 and feel really happy with the body of work I've produced."

Is he conscious of getting older, of time running out? "I'm conscious of age because I had an uncle who died when my first book was published and he was only 50 and he was incredibly healthy. He was a skier and a runner and he died suddenly one day when he was jogging and I've always been conscious of that, life is short and it matters to me to leave something behind me, to leave writing, to leave books.

"I just feel you never know and that being the case maybe I write too much -- but I can't stop myself. I'm a machine," he says, with mock ferocity and laughs before saying, "I've nothing else to do. I write."

Irish Independent

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