The Boy Who Saw In Colours is set in Germany during the Second World War. It is the story of two brothers who – despite their Jewish father – are selected for one of Hitler’s elite boarding schools for Nazi youth.
Josef, the protagonist, is a misfit in his new surroundings: as well as being half Jewish he is gay, and he prefers painting to fighting. We see the life of the school and the unfolding events of the war through his eyes, sharing his experiences and those of others around him, including his younger brother Tomas.
The central motif is of painting and colours: sudden bursts of colour permeate the story.
The premise of the story is interesting and there were some promising themes. I liked the contrast between the misfit Josef and his more compliant, people-pleasing, brother. There is an emphasis upon the human cost of the elite schools, their effect upon young lives. And there the narrative of an inarticulate boy who communicates through paint and colours, and a story of adolescent love.
Yet I felt that there were several missed opportunities. I would have expected most of the boys at the school to have become hardened by the regime (that, surely, was the purpose of the elite schools), but there was little evidence of the characters developing or changing. And the story wasn’t shocking enough. Given that this was wartime, there should have been more casualties among the central characters and their families.
However, my main problem with this book was with the way it was written. There was much more telling than showing, with no subtlety in the way the tale was rolled out. The reader was told what to think at every turn. And the main conceit of the book – Josef’s synesthesia – felt as if it was superimposed upon the story rather than an integral part of it.
That is not to say that there were not good parts to the writing. Some sections and phrases held potential, but generally the writing felt raw and unpolished. This may have been the author’s intention, but it didn’t really work for me. I was never drawn into the story, and as a consequence I didn’t have much empathy for the characters and never felt the tragedy of their fate. Overall, I thought that The Boy Who Saw In Colours had some good ideas, but that they were not fully developed.