I recommend the novel Once by Morris Gleitzman. Well, I was going to. Then I read the sequel Then before I had a chance to put pen to paper / finger to keyboard and I would be doing Gleitzman and anyone reading this a great disservice if I didn’t recommend both. In fact, I’m tempted to provisionally recommend the further sequels After and Now as I can’t imagine that they’ll be anything less than superb.
Once is the story of a ten-year-old boy attempting to understand the world around him. Felix is his name, he has a good heart and an even better imagination. Slowly the layers of stories he tells himself and others are gently peeled away to reveal the bleak backdrop of his adventures: Poland during the holocaust.
Gleitzman captures the same innocence as Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Such inexplicable acts of cruelty regress us all to childhood as we realise what a terrifying, incomprehensible world we really live in. Felix’s defence mechanism of fantastical storytelling is an infantilised equivalent of the very same stories we tell ourselves. Gleitzman’s ability to show such horrors through a prism of optimism makes the story at once exciting and horrifying, joyful yet terrible.
Felix has the cheeky charm of naughty school boy William Brown from Felix’s favourite books: Just William. He regularly prays to writer Richmal Compton and, when he becomes ‘Wilhelm’ in an attempt to hide his Jewish heritage, the transformation is complete. Gleitzman has created William and the Death Camp. That may sound glib, but it’s truly impressive that Gleitzman balances humour and horror to create such a vivid depiction of the holocaust. Felix’s tale of friendship and hope is punctured by sudden, jarring, all-too-real acts of brutality.
I recommend that you don’t read this on the train after a long day at work. You’ll look up in sudden sadness to find that, now that you’ve finished the book and no longer have Felix to comfort you, you’re surrounded by men drinking lager and a noisy hen party and none of them can understand your deep feeling of loss.