The setting is Australia. Eleanor and Alistair Brocket hate anything that’s out of the ordinary. Two of their children, Melanie and Henry, conform nicely. Unfortunately Barnaby has a distinctive characteristic; he defies gravity and floats in midair.
Unable to cope with their son’s deviation from the normal, his mother takes Barnaby to Sydney Harbour Bridge and lets him float away, hopefully never to be seen again. Barnaby’s travels are extensive. We see him in Brazil, in Ireland, on the Zambezi River, in Canada and the USA. He also travels in a space ship. The rest of the book deals with Barnaby’s struggle to get back home to Australia and to be accepted and recognised as a human being, albeit an unusual one. Some readers may find the travels excessive. Once it has been established that Barnaby’s gift can take him almost anywhere, the sequence of different destinations begins to feel too long.
The illustrations by Oliver Jeffers admirably exemplify and punctuate the quirky narrative. A postcard to his family explains how Barnaby planned to return from Brazil to Australia but fell asleep on a train and woke up in New York. (As if they care.)
This book is an obvious allegory. The reader gains a sense of how parents might feel if they have a disabled child, and how the isolation and hopelessness of such a child might deepen if the parents fail to demonstrate acceptance and support. The allegory works well, illustrating clearly the conflicting sentiments of those involved. Unlike many enthusiastic admirers of Boyne’s earlier book, I did not find The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas at all convincing. The central figure Bruno is the son of the commandant of a prison camp. The idea that he might live on the fringes of such a camp without having the least idea what was happening struck me as wholly unrealistic. Unlike Bruno, Barnaby does have a dawning awareness that his parents have treated him unjustly, some inkling that he has been victimised. In the end Barnaby’s parents try to force him to have an operation which might ‘cure’ him.
Barnaby reminds us, perhaps deliberately, of Harry Potter. Both Barnaby and Harry have conformist families and unusual gifts. Harry is slow to recognise the inhumanity of his aunt and uncle’s behaviour. Not until the third book of the series does he turn angrily upon them and Aunt Marge. But the reader accepts Harry’s excessively tolerant attitude because he lacks the evidence on which to base any other reaction. The same is true of Barnaby. No one else has a son who is weightless, so how does he have a yardstick for appropriate parental behaviour?
Barnaby undertakes both a physical journey – worldwide as it happens – and a spiritual journey with the destination of self-realisation and self-acceptance. It is a pleasurable and rewarding experience for young readers to accompany him.