John Boyne’s follow-up to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas focuses on the guilt and silent complicity of Bruno’s sibling Gretel
When he wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas more than 15 years ago, John Boyne could never have imagined the novel’s impact on his life and career. It went on to sell 11 million copies and counting, delivered an international audience for his work and meant everything he wrote afterwards would attract attention.
That book for younger readers, also read by adults, has a fable-like quality, and tells of the friendship between two boys during the Holocaust. One is Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a concentration camp commandant, probably Auschwitz since Bruno calls it Out-With, and the other is a small, shaven-headed Jewish captive named Shmuel. They meet when Bruno sees Shmuel behind a barbed wire fence.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been translated into dozens of languages, and adapted for cinema, theatre, ballet and opera. But it has also been criticised by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, operator of the facility at the former Nazi death camp in Poland, which advised readers to give the novel a miss and dismissed the way the two boys were portrayed.
A Twitter spat developed, somewhat unfairly because fiction isn’t history and doesn’t set out to be, and the book does raise awareness of the gas chambers. But there were concerns about the story being taught as fact. In any event, it proved to be a bruising encounter for Boyne.
There was also bite-back on social media over his portrayal of transgender issues in his 2019 novel for younger readers, My Brother’s Name is Jessica. An author might be forgiven for concluding that only people with direct experience of a subject are allowed to write about it nowadays, although writers have always relied on imagination and empathy.
Undeterred, Boyne returns to the Final Solution in his latest novel, All the Broken Places, focusing on the aftermath for Bruno’s older sister Gretel. He envisages the life she might have led, and how she would have processed her sense of guilt about her father’s role in the Third Reich.
This book is for adults, and has an ambitious historical sweep spanning eight decades. Readers follow Gretel from girlhood to the age of 92, as she moves from Poland to post-war France, then 1950s Australia and finally Britain. Despite the amount of ground it covers, it remains fast-paced, and Boyne — a talented storyteller — handles his historical material skilfully. Other historical fiction novels under his belt include Crippen, The House of Special Purpose and Mutiny on the Bounty.
Gretel is an intriguing character, if not always a likeable one — presumably this is intentional — and is more convincingly drawn in old age than as a teenager or young woman. When the novel opens, she is 91 and reluctantly interacting with nine-year-old Henry in the apartment below her. He acts as a constant reminder of Bruno — not least because he is in trouble and needs her help. When they meet, it’s as if a ghost has risen from the ashes, especially because she sees him by night wearing striped pyjamas. Their relationship is a touching one, recounted with charm despite his violent home circumstances.
In his author’s note, Boyne says he has been fascinated by the Holocaust since the age of 15, and that by trying to understand, he can only hope to remind and to remember. He describes writing about the Holocaust as “fraught”, and says any novelist approaching it has a burden of responsibility — not to educate, which falls to non-fiction, but to explore emotional truths.
So, to the emotional truths in All The Broken Places. It explores guilt and complicity, asks whether knowledge is a form of guilt, and examines a life of evasion and deception. Gretel avoids dealing with Nazi-hunters and international courts, despite the useful information she could share and the relief it might offer survivors and victims’ families, and spends a lifetime imprisoned by lies. Even after more than 60 years in London, she fears denunciation.
The novel pivots between various timelines, such as Paris in 1946, where Gretel and her mother have fled, changing their names and disguising their German accents to survive. They call the concentration camp “that other place” without saying its name. Gretel learns from the newspapers her father has been hanged, and recognises that to most people he’s evil — yet she loves him still.
“Who could ever create such places? Run them, work in them, kill so many people?” a French boyfriend asks. “How can there be such a collective lack of conscience?” Listening to him, Gretel realises she’ll have to lie every day for the rest of her life. Except, of course, she had a choice about whether to lie about her identity.
“Tell a story often enough and it becomes the truth,” her mother insists. Later, she says, “These people are unforgiving.” To which her daughter retorts: “Do you honestly think either of us deserves forgiveness?” This is a recurring theme: how culpable are those who see something wrong and look away? Are they also fiends? Are they guilty even if they don’t play an active role in the running of the camps? Are they guilty even if quite young and relatively powerless, as Gretel was — aged 12, and burning with desire for Kurt, a handsome 19-year-old SS lieutenant she knows to be cruel. And can these people ever be redeemed?
In another shift, the action moves to Sydney in 1953, where she meets Kurt again, like her, living under an alias. The most gripping scene in the novel ensues between the two, where he alternates between exonerating his own behaviour, and maintaining that if he is guilty, then she shares his guilt.
“Your father was a monster. I was just the monster’s apprentice,” says Kurt. He characterises himself as a teenager playing dress-up, enjoying the power that had landed in his lap as an SS lieutenant — the ability to kick a Jewish servant to death, without consequences, for spilling wine on him. But he also probes how she feels about Nazism being defeated — doesn’t she wish it could have triumphed?
He produces a pair of Hitler’s spectacles, and offers them to her to try on. How does she feel wearing them? Disgusted, repelled and ashamed, she says. But excited, too. Their exchange is both shocking and credible, and cinematic to the core.
Onwards to England where the years pass, she marries and has a son, followed by a mental breakdown when he crawls through a gap in the fence at the bottom of their apartment block, and into a demolition site. Fences unnerve her, and she dwells constantly on Bruno crossing that barbed wire fence at the place she won’t mention.
Towards the end of his narrative, Boyne returns us to wartime and that death camp. It feels appropriate to be there again, as readers. We know what we’ll encounter there yet the shock doesn’t lessen. The yellow stars. The huts. The guards. The striped prison uniforms. The desperation. The emaciation. The dehumanisation. And Gretel, petted 12-year-old daughter of the commandant, who both sees and refuses to see.
Fiction: All The Broken Places by John Boyne
Doubleday, 384 pages, hardcover €28; e-book £9.99
Martina Devlin’s latest book is ‘Edith: A Novel’ published by the Lilliput Press