Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
John Boyne has dealt with a wide variety of topics and ideas over the course of his twenty-plus novels, and in All the Broken Places he takes us into the life of a ninety-one year-old woman with a giant problem. She has a dark past she wishes to hide, one relating to Nazi Germany, but one night she witnesses a violent argument between her new neighbours, one which threatens to expose the history she so carefully protected for decades.
Table of contents
John Boyne Extracts the Deepest Secrets
It is often said a person cannot be held responsible for the actions of their family members, but in reality, it’s a concept we instinctively struggle to implement in our philosophies. We innately feel responsible for the actions of our direct ancestors, and as is the case for Gretel Wilson in John Boyne‘s All the Broken Places, we sometimes feel guilty enough to be ashamed and hide the truth at all costs.
The story begins by introducing us to the ninety-one year-old Gretel, spending her last merry days living a quiet and peaceful life in London, taking occasional strolls through Hyde Park and gossiping with her neighbour. She doesn’t talk much about her past, how he escaped Nazi Germany at the age of twelve, and even less about her father, an extermination camp commander back in his day.
Gretel has taken great pains to conceal her story from literally every other person she has ever met, respecting the silent moratorium she imposed on it for over eight decades. However, it seems like just at the tail end of her life things might change and threaten to expose who she really is, or perhaps more precisely, what kind of family she really belongs to.
The big change in her life is, in essence, the new family who moves into the apartment below hers. Despite her own reservations in this regard, Gretel nevertheless develops a friendship with the little boy of the family, Henry. Though his presence brings painful memories back, she sees a goodness in him she cannot turn away from.
One day, she witnesses a violent argument between Henry’s parents, and is faced with perhaps the last important choice of her life. She could try and take steps to save little Henry, to give him a better life and a future… however, this would force her to reveal her own secrets. The cost of her potential choices weighing down on her, Gretel seizes this chance to learn from the mistakes of her past, and put all of her accumulated wisdom to good use.
A Guilt Undeserved in All the Broken Places
The book is essentially told in two alternating parts, on dealing with Gretel in the modern day, and the other one with her past in Nazi Germany. If there is, however, one theme strongly uniting both narrations in this novel, I would say it’s guilt. Not the kind of personal guilt we’re used to, but something more profound, more accurately described as generational guilt.
As much as we’ve spent learning about the Nazis and all they’ve done, little attention was devoted to their children, and perhaps it was for the best; after all, children shouldn’t be forced to pay for the mistakes of their parents. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting topic which I believe deserves to be explored, something John Boyne does exceptionally well in All the Broken Places.
Whether we’re following Gretel’s youth or her life as a senior, we’re always made conscious of how she feels about her father’s identity, and just how desperately she wants to distance herself from the reality of her own family. We are made aware that in her own way, Gretel was and is still bound to suffer, bearing the cross of her father’s cruel misdeeds.
There are certainly different schools of thought on this matter, but I think John Boyne makes a rather good case for forgiveness, for judging people based on what they themselves do, to slice their family history away from them (at least when it comes to judgment). At the same time, he succeeds in making the reader understand why Gretel feels she can never let this secret see the light of day, just how profoundly her guilt has sunk its hooks into her over the last few decades.
Personally-speaking, watching Gretel analyze, describe, explore and struggle against her inner self-preservation mechanisms was one of the highlights of this book for me. She touches on some complex and far-reaching concepts along the way, essentially showing what it means to be a human being, and what it means to suffer for someone else’s sins.
Ethical and Moral Complexity
While All the Broken Places is the first novel I’ve read by John Boyne, I do have this distinct impression that he’s the sort of writer who doesn’t shy away from psychological complexity as well as profound dives into morality and ethics. On the contrary, I think he thrives on such moments and I do hope to see more of them in his future works.
Pretty much every character in this novel has been carefully crafted and finely tuned not to simply fulfill some purpose within the story, but to appear as a human being, with all the complicated imperfections such an existence implies. This is especially true in regards to Gretel, who is often confronted with difficult decisions which force her to choose between her values, what she knows to be right, and what she wants to achieve.
As a matter of fact, the way in which John Boyne explores Gretel’s dilemmas almost feels as if he’s throwing a bit of a challenge to the reader, begging the question as to what we would do if we were in her place. How well do our moral values stack up against the challenges described in this story? There’s definitely some valuable for thought to be found in here.
This also extends to the other characters, even little Henry who isn’t much more than a child at this stage. Sometimes our initial impressions are accurate, other times they are subverted, but by the end of the book we know enough about them all to truly see them as real people living their own lives in a very real world. Boyne did an absolutely spectacular feat in creating such a believable cast of characters, and ought to be applauded for it.
The struggle between morality, ethics and ultimate goals is what creates much of the conflict found in this book, and on the whole, I would say it’s a bit of a slower-paced read, despite being relatively short. There are a few nice twists along the way (even if a tad unbelievable on a couple of occasions), but it’s the sort of book which goes easy on the thrills and chills, instead providing a more meaningful and introspective experience.
|400||Pamela Dorman Books||Nov. 29 2022||978-0593653067|
The Final Verdict
All the Broken Places by John Boyne is an absolutely breathtaking piece of literature and fiction, telling a moving story with quite a few moving elements, centred on an extremely well-crafted protagonist, surrounded by a realistic cast of people with their own angels and demons to deal with.
If you’re interested in a novel following the story of an old woman, child to a Nazi, desperately trying to hide her past while dealing with the heart-wrenching trials of the present, then this you’ll assuredly find a lot to love about this book.
John Boyne is an Irish novelist with, for the moment, fourteen novels for adults under his belt, as well as six for younger readers, two novellas and a collection of short stories. His best-known novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was adapted into a feature film in 2008. Some of his other renowned works include The Absolutist, A History of Loneliness and All the Broken Places.