“That’s just not normal, that”.
But what exactly is normal and who, if anyone, has the right to decide what is normal? Your parents, your wider family, your friends, your teachers, society?
Where do we learn what is ‘normal’ and from whom? Sometimes it can be learnt from our parents and from their parents before them (an idea that is explored further by Boyne in the book). Sometimes from our peers – in the school playground and then on into adulthood. And sometimes from the media – actually a lot from the media – the papers, the TV, the Internet.
Barnaby Brocket is the third child born to Eleanor and Alastair. His siblings, Henry and Melanie, are perfectly normal. That is just how his parents like things – respectable, dull, as-far-from-the-centre-of-things-as-possible, normal. But Barnaby is far from normal. He floats. This presents major problems carrying out the simplest of things like going to the loo for example. And for his parents, a normal trip to the park is now anything but normal if you want to ensure your youngest child doesn’t float away and at the same time avoiding drawing attention to yourself – heaven forbid.
Yet Barnaby tries SO hard to fit in with the image of ‘normal’ that this parents so desperately seek – he endures days and days couped up at the family home so that Eleanor and Alastair don’t have to face going outside with him (usually on the end of a leash, just like a kite); he gets sent to a school miles away from his home so that the neighbours’ children won’t find out about him; he even puts up with wearing rucksacks loaded down with sand which dig deep into his shoulders so that his feet stay firmly on the ground.
But no matter how hard Barnaby tries, it’s never good enough. And from what starts as as seed of an idea, develops into a definite plan in the minds of his parents – to cut the apron strings good and proper. So, one fateful day, whilst on a walk, Barnaby’s mother makes a small cut in the bottom of his rucksack and out pours the sand that has been weighing him down – turning him into a “human egg-timer”. It was a deliberate act by Eleanor Brocket to send her youngest son skyward and out of her life and that of her husband’s for good.
Fortunately for Barnaby, he drifts into the path of a hot air balloon, piloted by Ethel and Marjorie, an elderly couple who know exactly how it feels to be betrayed by one’s family. And so begins an extraordinary adventure for Barnaby, spanning the globe and breadth of human nature, meeting along the way a host of characters, all of whom have a story to tell and a perspective to share on what it means to be ‘normal’.
John Boyne has crafted a beautiful tale about what it is to be ‘normal’, what it is to be different and the common perceptions and misunderstandings of both. Barnaby, Boyne’s hero, brings his childlike simplicity to bear on these awkward questions and every time his innocence and straightforwardness cuts right through the rubbish strategies adults employ when they are fearful, anxious or just plain embarrassed about what other people think.