All the Broken Places by John Boyne

I love John Boyne’s books and couldn’t wait to read his new one, All the Broken Places. It’s a sequel to his 2006 children’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but this time it’s aimed at adults. Although I haven’t read the first book, I have seen the film and that helped me understand the background of the characters and the references to things that had happened in the past. If you’re not familiar with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, though, I don’t think it would matter too much as this book does work on its own.

All the Broken Places begins in the present day, 2022, and is narrated by ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby. Gretel has lived in the same luxury apartment building in London since the 1960s; most of the other residents have also been there for a long time, so when a new family move into the flat below, Gretel is curious to meet her new neighbours. However, she is alarmed to discover that the family includes a nine-year-old boy, Henry, who brings back memories of her own brother at the same age – memories Gretel has spent her whole life trying to suppress.

As she gets to know Henry and his parents, Gretel quickly becomes aware that something is not right. She wants to help, but is afraid of making the situation worse. At the same time, she is forced to confront her own past when, as the young daughter of a Nazi commandant of a Polish concentration camp, she and her mother fled to France at the end of the war and tried to build new lives for themselves under new identities. Gretel has lived with the shame and guilt ever since, but now it seems she might have an opportunity to redeem herself.

As the story of Gretel’s life unfolds, we are taken on a journey from Poland to France, Australia and then England. Chapters set in the past alternate with chapters set in the present as Gretel battles with her conscience again to try to do the right thing for Henry. There are not many books with protagonists in their nineties and I admired her for the courage, resilience and wisdom she displays in old age, despite what she may have done or not done when she was younger.

I really enjoyed this book, although at times it’s an uncomfortable read and often a moving one. John Boyne has shown previously that he’s not afraid to tackle controversial subjects in his novels and I’m sure this is another one that will divide opinion. Some readers will take the view that anyone with any connection to the atrocities of the Holocaust deserves no pity; others will have sympathy for a twelve-year-old girl who, although she was at least partly aware of what was happening, lacked the strength, will and opportunity to do anything about it and has regretted it ever since. This is a theme Boyne has explored several times before, particularly in A History of Loneliness (a novel about the child abuse scandal within the Catholic church and probably my favourite of his books) – whether by turning a blind eye to the actions of others we are as much to blame as they are and whether it’s our responsibility to speak out if we know something is wrong.

This is a fascinating novel; it’s published today and I look forward to hearing what other people think of it.

Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 49/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

17 thoughts on “All the Broken Places by John Boyne

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    I confess to having feelings of doubt about novels which ‘feature’ the events of the Holocaust, especially the ones which seem to view it as a convenient backdrop for romance or adventure – mining such horrific events for personal gain leaves a bad taste in my mouth. From your review, it seems that this book is more thoughtful and covers serious issues. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there’s been controversy about The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas being used in schools as if it was historical truth, when according to many historians, it’s anything but. So I’m ambivalent about this book, and I’m not sure if I’ll read it.

    • Helen says:

      I agree that it feels very wrong to use a subject like the Holocaust in fiction purely for ‘entertainment’ purposes. This particular book isn’t really about the Holocaust itself so much as an exploration of guilt, complicity and whether the families of war criminals should be held partly responsible for their actions. I thought it was interesting, but it won’t be to everybody’s taste.

  2. margaret21 says:

    I share many of Pam Thomas’ feelings and tend to avoid authors mining that particular period of history – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is one I found uneasy reading. There seems to be a bit of a Holocaust bandwagon at the moment, and I’m more comfortable (Comfortable? Hardly!) with books like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, and If This Is A Man by Primo Levi. Which all sounds like a criticism of you and your tastes – not at all. Boyne is a writer whose books I admire. So I might be drawn to this one in due course.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not usually drawn to Holocaust novels myself, but I wanted to read this one as I’ve enjoyed so many of John Boyne’s other books. As I’ve said to Pam, this book is more about the aftermath of the Holocaust than about the events of the Holocaust itself. I found it very thought-provoking but I can see how it won’t appeal to everyone!

  3. mallikabooks15 says:

    I haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas so far, mostly because the idea does make me a bit uncomfortable, but this one seems to explore a predicament someone in that position might well have faced; I can see it being uncomfortable and emotionally wrenching

    • Helen says:

      I had avoided reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas too, but found myself watching the film one day, so I knew the background before starting to read this one. I’ve never really considered what it might have been like to be a family member of a Nazi, so this book gave me a lot to think about.

      • Pam Thomas says:

        Before I went to university, I spent a short while working for an aristocratic family in Germany – this was in the early 70s. I was very shocked, walking into their drawing room, to see a large portrait of Herr Baron’s father, wearing full SS uniform. I didn’t have the nerve to ask any of the family about it – he was a distant figure, his aunt was frankly terrifying, and his wife was taken up with a new baby and in any case, was Swiss, so had no connection with the war years. Not long ago, I looked them up online, and found absolutely nothing about his father’s war career. Shame or discretion? Who knows!

  4. Lark says:

    I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and didn’t hate it, but it’s not Boyne’s best, and that ending was a bit of a jolt. This one sounds like the better book.

  5. Rachel R. says:

    [Sic] although she was at least partly aware of what was happening…” The thing is though, both Bruno and Gretel would’ve known about what was happening. All German youth were required to join the Hitler Youth. She knew what was happening. Again, Boyle gives sympathy to the Nazis without giving any to the victims. (Especially since Gretel gets to live in a million dollar mansion.) I want to read a novel about a camp survivor and what they had to go through. I want their struggle. Not this.

    • Helen says:

      I wonder what a twelve-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy could realistically have done about it, regardless of whether they knew exactly what was going on or not. Who would they report it to? How could two children defy not only their parents but the entire Nazi regime? It would have been difficult for Gretel to do something that would make a difference. She could have spoken out afterwards but she didn’t because she was frightened and she lived with the guilt for the rest of her life, which is what I interpreted the book as being about. Luckily thousands of books have been written about camp survivors and their struggles, so it should be easy enough to avoid reading John Boyne’s books as you already know you don’t like them.

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