Friday, 21 March 2014
Review: The Wrong Boy by Suzy Zail
Publisher: Walker Books
Released: January 2nd, 2014
Hanna is a talented pianist, and the protected second daughter of middle class Hungarian Jews. Relatively late in World War II the Budapest Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Hanna and her mother and sister are separated from her father. Her mother becomes increasingly mentally ill until she too is taken away somewhere. Her sister Erika is slowly starving to death. Hanna is quite a naïve 15-year-old but when presented with the opportunity to play piano for the camp commander, she is desperate to be chosen. She goes each day under guard to the commander's house and stands waiting in case the commander should want some music. Also living in the house is the commander's son, Karl. A handsome young man who seems completely disengaged from what is happening around him. Hanna hates him as he sits drawing in the music room. But the longer Hanna goes to the house, the more she realizes there are other things going on. Secret things. Karl may not be the person she thinks he is. Before she knows it she has fallen in love with the wrong boy.
I've been interested in the Second World War for a long time and have always enjoyed reading fiction set within this time frame, especially young adult fiction. The Wrong Boy is a book I'd never even heard of until a few weeks ago; somehow it has flown under the radar and got lost in a vast sea of new 2014 publications. But no more. Since reading it I've tried to tell everyone I know about it, because it's brilliant, important and absolutely heartbreaking. It's one of the best fictional accounts of the Holocaust I've read and, even though it is by no means an easy read, it's one that should be prevalent in schools across the country.
I read the majority of The Wrong Boy with tears in my eyes, and had to stop a few times for a break. The sheer horrors of WWII and the Holocaust are presented here in stark, brutal honesty. Concentration camps and the eradication of Jews is a well-known part of WWII and I know a lot about it myself, yet I'm still shocked to my core whenever I read anything about it. The inhumane way these people were treated never ceases to amaze me, and I still think it's the single worst thing to ever happen in our history. I sincerely hope that will never change.
Hanna is such a strong character, looking after her mother and sister, Erika, after their father is separated from them. She's brave, confused, angry, thoughtful, caring - if she can put her family before herself, she will. If she has a scrap of spare food or an item of clothing she can do without, she willingly gives it to her mother or sister. As she watches Erika slowly starving to death and her mother's mental health deteriorating, Hanna finds herself with the chance to play piano for the camp's Commandant. It's the only chance for her family's survival, so she goes and she plays music for the enemy. It really is a display of courage at its finest.
The title The Wrong Boy is somewhat misleading. At a first glance, you'd think it's a love story set in WWII, between a Jewish pianist and a boy from the wrong side of the fence. This isn't the case at all, and the title actually becomes clear with one single line later in the book. Romance is absolutely not the main focus of this story, if at all, and for that reason I think the title is misleading. It's about a girl and her family's struggle for survival, their will to keep living through every atrocity thrown at them, and how their whole lives have been taken away from them. So don't let the title fool you: this isn't a love story.
Author Suzy Zail's own father was a survivor of the Holocaust, so this is a subject very close to her. She writes with a lot of emotion and powerfully brings Auschwitz to life, leaving in her wake a novel of great worth. I'm not sure how historically accurate everything depicted is but, from what non-fiction I've read on the subject, I'd say it's all there as it should be. Obviously no-one can ever know what it was truly like unless they were there, but Zail has done her best to portray this time as well as she can.
I'm still thinking about The Wrong Boy weeks after reading it, and I can't believe I almost missed it. It's the most important, heart-wrenching book I think I'll read this year, and I just hope it gets the recognition it deserves. For anyone who's read and enjoyed The Book Thief, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Between Shades of Gray, I urge you to get hold of a copy of The Wrong Boy. It's a truly affecting piece of historical fiction that will leave you grateful to every soldier who fought to end the Second World War, and one that will make you think about those lost to us in the Holocaust. It's a must-read.