Thursday, September 21, 2023

All The Broken Places by John Boyne

All The Broken Places
by John Boyne
Read by Kristin Ahterton and Helen Lloyd 
12 hours 42 minutes
Published November 2022 by Penguin Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby has lived in the same well-to-do mansion block in London for decades. She lives a quiet, comfortable life, despite her deeply disturbing, dark past. She doesn’t talk about her escape from Nazi Germany at age 12. She doesn’t talk about the grim post-war years in France with her mother. Most of all, she doesn’t talk about her father, who was the commandant of one of the Reich’s most notorious extermination camps. 

Then, a new family moves into the apartment below her. In spite of herself, Gretel can’t help but begin a friendship with the little boy, Henry, though his presence brings back memories she would rather forget. One night, she witnesses a disturbing, violent argument between Henry’s beautiful mother and his arrogant father, one that threatens Gretel’s hard-won, self-contained existence. 

All The Broken Places moves back and forth in time between Gretel’s girlhood in Germany to present-day London as a woman whose life has been haunted by the past. Now, Gretel faces a similar crossroads to one she encountered long ago. Back then, she denied her own complicity, but now, faced with a chance to interrogate her guilt, grief and remorse, she can choose to save a young boy. If she does, she will be forced to reveal the secrets she has spent a lifetime protecting. This time, she can make a different choice than before—whatever the cost to herself….

My Thoughts: 
I did that thing again, the thing where I don't finish listening to a book before my loan expires and then months later, when I finally get it back again, I can't remember a thing I listened to before and I have to go back aways into the book to refresh my memory. In no time, though, I was once again swept into this book and everything it made me feel. 

In 2006, Boyne wrote the bestseller The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. Readers of that book will recognize the main character in this book. Gretel Fernsby was 12 years old in that first book. Almost 80 years later, she is still living with the guilt of what she did then and what her father (and, by extension, her family) did and stood for. 

Here we are centered on present-day Gretel, but Boyne drops us back in to different times in Gretel's life. First to the time she and her mother spent in Paris, then to the time she spent in Australia, then to her early life with her late husband and son. In all of those places, Gretel is faced with the repercussions of what her father did, of her own feelings about it, of her implicate others who were guilty of heinous acts. But Gretel has been living for a long time with the past buried, in no small part because she keeps so much to herself. But young Henry has brought back the memory of what Gretel did to her brother and she finally sees a way to at least partially redeem herself. 

Like The German Wife, this book left me with mixed feelings about the main character. How much of what happened in those camps is she complicit in? What is her responsibility to those who died and those who suffered? Are we meant to feel sorry for her or should she be punished for what she did (or didn't) do? To be fair, Gretel was a young girl, not able to stop anything. But she could, in later years, have done more and it's hard to forgive her for that. Especially in light of the fact that she seems to feel much greater guilt for what happened to her brother than what happened to the millions of others who died. I wanted her to make things right in some way and here Boyne did not disappoint. 

I definitely recommend the audiobook (although I'm sure it's great in print, as well) and can imagine that this book would give book clubs a lot to talk about. 

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