#BookReview All The Broken Places by John Boyne

All The Broken PlacesAbout the Book

1946. Three years after a cataclysmic event which tore their lives apart, a mother and daughter flee Poland for Paris, shame, and fear at their heels, not knowing how hard it is to escape your past.

Nearly eighty years later, Gretel Fernsby lives a life that is a far cry from her traumatic childhood. When a couple moves into the flat below her in her London mansion block, it should be nothing more than a momentary inconvenience. However, the appearance of their nine-year-old son Henry brings back memories she would rather forget.

Faced with a choice between her own safety and his, Gretel is taken back to a similar crossroads she encountered long ago. Back then, her complicity dishonoured her life, but to interfere now could risk revealing the secrets she has spent a lifetime protecting.

Format: Hardback (384 pages)                Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: 15th September 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I have the feeling I may be one of the few people in the world who has not read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or seen the film adaptation. I wondered if this would effect my appreciation of this, its sequel; the answer is a definite no. In fact All The Broken Places may be one of the most memorable and thought-provoking novels I read this year. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve found it so difficult to write a review that will do it justice. (I’m still not sure I have.)

Moving between past and present, we gradually learn about Gretel’s childhood and the impact her proximity to the horrific events of the Holocaust has had on her. Having had an early taste of what her identity becoming known might result in, the majority of Gretel’s life has been spent hiding her past, adopting new identities when disclosure is threatened, moving to new places and being in a constant state of watchfulness.

In addition, she has lived with a constant sense of guilt – at the dreadful things that took place ‘on the other side of the fence’ and her part in the death of a loved one.  ‘Guilt was what kept you awake in the middle of the night or, if you managed to sleep, poisoned your dreams. Guilt intruded upon any happy moments, whispering in your ear that you had no right to pleasure. Guilt followed you down streets, interrupting the most mundane moments with remembrances of days and hours when you could have done something to prevent tragedy but chose to do nothing.’ Managing those feelings of guilt has meant repressing unwelcome memories. There are photographs Gretel can’t bear to look at, a location she refers to only as ‘that other place’, a name she can’t bear to say.

There are a number of occasions on which Gretel is challenged about her defence that she was ‘just a child’ and had no knowledge of what was taking place. And, that even if it was true, she did nothing after the war to help bring the perpetrators to justice. In fact that she took deliberate steps to avoid this. When, soon after the end of the war, she is presented with indisputable evidence of what occurred and how close she was to that cruelty, the effect on her is so unbearable it results in a catastrophic act and the destruction of a relationship.

In the book there are not just broken places but broken people too. Gretel, of course, but also her mother, and Gretel’s new neighbour Madelyn.

There are moments of light amongst the darkness. For example, Gretel’s tender relationship with her vulnerable neighbour, Heidi, and the way she bonds with young Henry. And Edgar, Gretel’s late husband, whom we meet at the very beginning of their relationship, is a wonderful model of devotion, understanding and acceptance.

All the Broken Places is an unsparing exploration of how the sins of the past can weigh on individuals and the burden of complicity. ‘By doing nothing, you did everything. By taking no responsibility, you bear all responsibility.’ The book poses some difficult questions. If someone you love commits terrible acts is it right to still love them? Can anything you do ever make up for the sins of others? Is taking one life to save another justified?

I’m not sure the actions Gretel takes at the end of the book represent sufficient reparation given the scale of the evil that occurred in ‘that other place’ but I got the sense Gretel thought they did and she viewed the consequences of her actions as a kind of justice, as the punishment she deserved.

In his afterword, the author states his belief that, for all the mistakes in her life and her complicity in evil, Gretel’s story is still worth telling but it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s worth reading.  My conclusion is an unequivocal yes.

I received an advance digital copy courtesy of Doubleday via NetGalley.

In three words: Powerful, moving, thought-provoking


John BoyneAbout the Author

John Boyne is the author of thirteen novels for adults, six for younger readers and a collection of short stories. His 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide and has been adapted for cinema, theatre, ballet and opera. His many international bestsellers include The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky. He has won three Irish Book Awards, along with a host of other international literary prizes. His novels are published in over fifty languages. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert

The Bone FlowerAbout the Book

On a November evening in Victorian London, the moneyed but listless Edward Monteith stokes the fire at his local gentlemen’s club, listening to stories of supernatural experiences and theories of life after death. His curiosity leads him to a séance, where he falls under the spell of a beautiful flower seller. But Victorian society does not look kindly on love between a gentleman of means and a Romani girl, and when he faces being cut off by his family, Edward makes a decision with horrifying consequences.

Two years later Edward is married and anticipating the birth of his first child, in a beautiful house lined with orange blossom trees. But the wrongs of the past are not so easily forgotten, and the boundary between the living and the dead begins to thin…

Format: Paperback (240 pages)               Publisher: Gallic Books
Publication date: 22nd September 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Bone Flower is a delightfully atmospheric and spooky story written in a style that deftly conjures up the period in which it is set. Edward’s passionate love affair with flower girl Settie ends in tragedy when he makes a misguided and disastrous decision. It’s one which will haunt him, not only because of his feelings of guilt and regret, but in another more literal sense, particularly after his marriage to Marisol and the birth of his son, Tommaso.

There are scenes in the book that could have come straight out of an M. R. James ghost story, and I mean that as a compliment. We witness the sort of small occurrences that might be laughed off in daylight but take on a whole different perspective when they occur at night: the distant sound of a child crying, a locked and shuttered window that repeatedly blows open or ‘a sort of shuffling noise’ heard outside a bedroom door as if a creature were feeling its way towards it. (I’m not sure if this was deliberate on the part of the author but there are a couple of names in the book that crop up in M. R. James stories.) There were also definite shades of Edgar Allan Poe; I’m thinking of his story ‘Ligeia’. And since my John Buchan radar is always on full alert, the opening scenes in the gentleman’s club in which the members swap stories, especially Rickman’s tale of his strange experiences in Africa, made me think of Buchan’s book, The Runagates Club.

A skilfully crafted Gothic mystery, The Bone Flower‘s combination of uncanny events, ghostly goings-on and story of forbidden love make it the perfect reading companion for autumn evenings.

My thanks to Isabelle at Gallic Books for my proof copy.

In three words: Chilling, atmospheric, mysterious

Try something similar: Printers’ Devil Court by Susan Hill


Charles LambertAbout the Author

Charles Lambert is the author of several novels, short stories, and the memoir With a Zero at its Heart, which was voted one of The Guardian readers’ Ten Best Books of the Year in 2014. His novel Prodigal was shortlisted for the Polari Prize for LGBTQ writing in 2019. Born in England, Charles Lambert has lived in central Italy since 1980. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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