Reading Noah Barleywater Runs Away is an unusual experience. Quite unlike anything else I've read, it's a work of art. Part coming-of-age story, part fable, the second children's book from John Boyne will also be of interest to older readers.
Eight-year-old Noah is our protagonist. He's a boy running away from home for the first time - away from something he doesn't even want to think about. As he runs, Noah enters a world that's straight out of the pages of a child's storybook. On the surface, it's a vivid and enchanting land where anything can happen; where animals talk and trees object to a presumptuous boy swiping their fruits for a snack. But when Noah's journey brings him to a mysterious toyshop, and we meet the old man who lives there, it becomes clear that there is far more to this adventure than pure whimsy. Noah's acquaintance is strangely familiar, and we gradually realise that he's not just any toymaker. His story is in some ways the flipside of Noah's, and the young runaway needs to hear what he has to say.
Sensitively drawn, Noah possesses all the widsom of a real eight-year-old boy. The further we get from our own childhoods, the easier it is to forget how aware we were of the complexities of our lives in those days; this book reminds us. While I would usually hesitate to read a book about a protagonist this young, particularly a boy (having never been one), I found Noah astute and inquisitive and impossible not to relate to. In some ways Noah Barleywater Runs Away is a coming-of-age story, as it deals with a chapter in his life when he has to face essential truths about the human condition a little earlier than most. The magic realism of the world he enters may be spellbinding, but he's also a character bidding farewell to part of his childhood. While I have to confess I did find myself moved to tears on several occcasions while reading, it's not by any means a bleak tale. It's honest and hopeful. It's about real life.
Noah Barleywater Runs Away is a modern children's classic in the making. Beautiful and moving and rare, it will resonate with readers of ages because its subject matter is universal. At some point, we will all have to undertake a journey like Noah's - to learn what he learns for ourselves - and that's what makes it so poignant. I'd urge everyone to step outside their reading comfort zones and give this one a try.
Out: September 30th 2010, UK
A heartfelt thanks to David Fickling Books for providing a review copy.