Book Review: ‘Caging Skies’ by Christine Leunens

About a month ago, I wrote a post about my love of the film Jojo Rabbit and my admiration for its director, Taika Waititi. Recently I finished the book Caging Skies by New Zealand based author, Christine Leunens that inspired Jojo Rabbit and I thought it would be fun to write a review of it.

I knew very little about the plot of this book before I read it, I only knew that Jojo Rabbit was based on the first half of the book and that the book had a much darker tone than the film. I was excited to read it however, as I found myself needing more Jojo Rabbit-related content in my life. The first thing I would say about the book is that it is very easy to read. This might seem silly to point out, but sometimes I find reading a difficult book with complicated descriptions and unfamiliar vocabulary to be very boring and can take me out of the story. Clear, concise descriptions can really bring a story to life. This was probably one of the best things about this book.

I think if I had read Caging Skies before seeing Jojo Rabbit, I would have appreciated it more. As a run-of-the-mill piece of historical fiction, it is certainly not bad, however the story is certainly lacking in many places. Like Jojo Rabbit, it centers on Johannes Betzler, growing up in Austria during the rise of the Third Reich and later World War Two, and follows him as he becomes indoctrinated with Nazi ideals that are challenged when he discovers a Jewish girl, Elsa Kor, hiding in his attic. The book lacks the humorous and whimsical elements of the film and many of the storylines are slightly different. In the book Johannes and Elsa are much older. We also meet Johannes’ father and grandma, in the novel. Waititi’s imaginary Hitler also does not exist in the novel.

One of Leunens’ biggest mistakes, is making Johannes, the protagonist and narrator of the story. In this version, Johannes is completely unlikeable. He treats Elsa horribly, he spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself and he has no redeemable qualities. When writing a point of view character, there must be something that is likeable or compelling about them, they must be more complicated than simply being a villain. You can find an excellent example of this in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Jaime Lannister commits many vile acts throughout the series, he has an incestuous relationship with his sister and he attempts child murder to keep this secret, yet Jaime also has many interesting motivations, leaving the reader feeling morally conflicted. On the other hand, Jaime’s son, Joffrey, is utterly despicable and is impossible to like, yet he still is necessary for the story. Martin cleverly uses the compelling Jaime as point of view character and evil Joffrey as a background character. I think this is something Leunens could learn from, I think Caging Skies may have been more interesting if Leunens had used third-person narration for the story.

I think it would be very easy to say that the darker tone of Caging Skies, makes it inferior to Jojo Rabbit. However, I feel the novel lacks the emotion and humanity of the film. Although, the novel is interesting in a historical context, I found it impossible to connect with the very human struggles the characters were dealing with. One of the most emotional moments of the film that sent tears streaming down my cheeks was taken almost directly from the novel. Yet I felt almost nothing when I read it in the novel. A story like this can survive without comedy, it cannot survive without emotion. I feel as if Waititi read the first half of the novel, loved the interesting concept and then changed the story to allow the film to live up to its full potential. The film has almost everything the novel lacks. While Leunens tries to include interesting themes of toxic masculinity and disillusionment, this only serves to make Johannes and consequently the novel, even more unlikeable.

If you have not seen the joy that is Jojo Rabbit, I would recommend reading this novel. As I said before, it certainly is not ‘bad’. Yet it is nowhere near as good as the film. I was quite disappointed by the quality of the book and I wish I could have liked it more. It does sort of work as a companion piece to Jojo Rabbit, to show an alternate version of the film’s events. Overall, I would rate this novel 5 out of ten. It has a fantastic concept, yet ultimately it fails to reach its potential. This must be one of the few examples of the movie being much better than the book it is based on.

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