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Sunday, November 6, 2022



From the outset, I would like to stress two important points with regards to my approach to this novel. The first thing I need to mention is that I am a huge Boyne fan and consider him a master storyteller. The second point is that this is a sequel to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but if you have not read it, All The Broken Places can be approached as a stand-alone book in its own right.

This is the story of Gretel Fernsby. It takes the reader from Gretel’s life as a 12-year-old young girl all the way through to 91-year-old Gretel. After the war in Germany, Gretel and her mother escape to France where they live under assumed names. Gretel’s father was a high-ranking officer in Hitler’s army and responsible for many of the atrocities committed at that time. Twelve-year-old Gretel is unaware of the magnitude of his involvement but the all-consuming guilt of his actions shadows her life completely.

After her mother dies in Paris, Gretel then decides, as a young woman in her early twenties, to go and live in Australia, obviously once again under a false name. In Australia, she is once again faced with echoes of her past and it becomes impossible for her to continue living there. She encounters a man who was a young Nazi officer with her father – she was besotted with him as a young girl and the shock of seeing him in Sydney unhinges her.

Certain of her actions at this time necessitate her having to flee Australia. She then decides to go and live in England to see whether she can, once and for all, get away from the guilt that torments her.

Despite meeting a lovely man, falling in love and marrying him, Gretel is shrouded in a veil of guilt, grief, remorse and dark memories. She and her husband, Edgar, move into a beautiful mansion block in London and that is where she lives her entire time whilst in London. Once she is widowed, she continues to live there. She has a son but feels inadequate as a mother and their relationship is therefore difficult and complicated. Ninety-one-year-old Gretel keeps an eye out for her early onset dementia neighbour and her life, considering her advanced age, is a relatively active, ordered existence.

Things then change – a young family move into the flat on the floor below and against her will, Gretel is drawn into their lives. She befriends the nine-year-old boy Henry and this friendship brings memories rushing back of the worst time of her life. Henry’s father is domineering and a bully – Gretel notices that Henry is constantly nursing a bruise, burn or broken arm. Henry’s mother, once an actress, is no longer permitted to pursue her acting career – her husband has forbidden it. When she overhears an argument between Henry’s parents, Gretel realizes she cannot stay on the sidelines any longer. But, by becoming involved, she will have to face the possibility of her true identity becoming known.

By disclosing what Gretel then does to protect Henry would be a huge spoiler – therefore I will refrain from doing so. However, the way this novel ends as a result of Gretel’s actions, is, in my opinion, rather implausible. As I consider John Boyne to be an absolute wizard at epic storytelling, I feel quite audacious to even think of criticising such a great writer. On the other hand, I suppose we are each entitled to our opinion and I honestly feel that the ending could have been dealt with in a far more believable fashion.

This having been said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book – Boyne says in his Author’s Note at the end of the book: “For all the mistakes in her life, for all her complicity in evil, and for all her regrets, I believe that Gretel’s story is also worth telling.”

It is up to the reader to decide whether it is worth reading. - Fiona de Goede

All The Broken Places is published by Penguin Random House South Africa:  ISBN 978-0-8575-2886-5