The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne
Doubleday $27.99

I'm a grownup (well, an adult) so I don't read children's books, except to the grandchildren. I am, therefore, somewhat surprised to find myself enjoying Irish author John Boyne's latest novel, The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket.

Barnaby Brocket is an eight-year-old boy, the youngest child of the most normal family in Australia. His parents, Alistair and Eleanor, are boring and respectable, and have no desire to be anything else. They live in a normal house with two other normal children and a normal dog (Captain W.E. Johns - how did that get past the conventional parents?). Mr and Mrs Brocket have no time for people who make an exhibition of themselves, or who display any sort of aberrant behaviour.

Barnaby's arrival, and his little idiosyncracy, throws everything into disarray. Although desperate to please his disapproving, horrified parents, it seems nothing is good enough.

One day, Mrs Brocket decides she's had enough. She's sick of nosy neighbours and prying newspapers. With the agreement of her husband, she decides that Barnaby has to go.


Frightened and betrayed, young Barnaby begins a series of adventures that lead him across the world and into the paths of some extraordinary people. There's a hot air balloon with two loving and comforting passengers, a circus and its unusual exhibits and unscrupulous owner, artists with unique talents, and even a trip into middle space.

Despite all these adventures, Barnaby is desperate to get back home. When the opportunity finally comes, he realises that having the chance to just be yourself is stronger than expectations put on you by a family.

The characters in Barnaby Brocket are reminiscent of those found in works by Roald Dahl, and are equally as warm and appealing. Despite a couple of geographical howlers (the Mornington Peninsula is in Victoria, not New South Wales) it's a magical read.

This is John Boyne's third novel for young readers. His first, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, won two Irish Book Awards and was made into a film. He has also written six novels for adults.

I remain unconvinced that books for children (or that ghastly neologism, kidults) are a genre that I need to master. Devotees of J.K. Rowling will probably disagree. I shall, however, look out for other novels by Boyne.

In the meantime, The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket will go to my 11-year-old grandson. His opinion will be interesting.

Phoebe Falconer is an Auckland reviewer.