All The Broken Places John Boyne Doubleday, €14.99
A sequel to the Nazi-era fable The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas John Boyne’s latest follows the life of Gretel, the older sister of the original novel’s nine-year-old protagonist, Bruno.
Gretel, now a 91-year-old widow, lives in a Mayfair flat. Her settled existence, largely untroubled by her son’s many marriages and the cognitive deterioration of her septuagenarian neighbour Heidi, is disturbed by the arrival of new neighbours.
The book flips back and forth between present-day London and mid-1940s Paris, the city to which Gretel and her mother fled after the fall of the Reich and the execution of the family’s patriarch, Auschwitz’s overseer.
Passing themselves off as natives of Nantes (a city not noted for its German accents) the pair try to navigate post-war life in the traumatised city.
Later we see Gretel move to Australia. There, she runs into a character from her hidden past who confronts her with her own complicity and ongoing fascination with the Third Reich.
When Gretel flees to London, she meets Edgar, the historian she will marry.
The backstory is interwoven with Gretel’s present-day travails with her neighbours – a glamorous but troubled ex-actress mother, a cartoonishly overbearing father, and their bookish son — yet another nine-year-old boy.
Unlike The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, this isn’t explicitly a fable. Just when we think it is a realistic portrayal of a woman who has spent her life both hiding and coming to terms with her role in the Holocaust, there is a clunky narrative plot. It’s difficult to imagine that a girl who saw an SS officer beat a Jewish servant to death beside the family dinner table and who took tours of Auschwitz itself would miss the fact that her London lover was Jewish, for instance.
The dialogue is sometimes natural, at other times, jarring and performative. The instant she meets Gretel for the first time, her latest daughter-in-law, a heart surgeon, makes a speech about guilt over the death of patients which would make anyone question her medical competence and her sanity. Characters frequently question whether others have “gone mad” as an explanation for the odd dialogue.
And yet, I devoured this book, faults and all. Gretel is a fascinating character; a mix of outer steely survivor and inner emotional wreck. There are deep ethical questions at the heart of her story. Boyne is simply a great storyteller. Suspension of disbelief may be required sometimes, but the man knows how to spin a good yarn.