About 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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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
About 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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