As far as any sequel goes, this one actually arrived sooner than planned.
Which is more than I can say about my book reviews, the last one posted 12 months ago! Clearly, I’ve got some catching up to do.
52 year old author John Boyne had originally planned to write this sequel to his YA (young adult) bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas much later, in his 80s or even 90s.
But Covid happened.
The forced lockdown in 2020 gave this prolific author ample time to revisit a tale now, rather than wait another three decades or more. A tale that captured many ardent followers when it was published in 2006, nearly two decades ago.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas sold over 11 million copies globally and was also turned into a movie in 2008, and a literature text in many schools, including my son’s.
It also spurred me to pen a review of it which I posted 13 months ago.
Never did I imagine 13 months later, I would have read and am now reviewing his follow-up — All The Broken Places.
Source: Better Reading
Published late last year, this sequel follows the life of Gretel, the older sister of Bruno who was the title character of the first book. This follow-up traces the events of her life after the Holocaust, covering two timelines simultaneously told. One is of her experiences while in her teens and 20s; the other in her 90s.
[For those yet to read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, do check out my review on it]
In the opening chapters of All The Broken Places, we see that Gretel had lived in London for decades and is now in her 90s. In the time between the end of the first book and now, she’s fought hard to keep a very low profile, never speaking of her Nazi Germany childhood and her role as the daughter of the Auschwitz concentration camp commandant.
Unfortunately, her life is upended when a new family moves in one floor below her apartment, their circumstances forcing Gretel to confront her past. Especially the time in her teens and 20s when she had to face up to the harsh consequences of her heritage.
This sequel ensures we never forget
I’m glad there are new attempts like this sequel to remind us of our ever-so-flawed human history.
How the tyranny of one group of people can wreak havoc and monstrous destruction on another long after the dust and debris of war have settled.
For me, that was exactly what this sequel does.
It shines a necessary light on how those in power were, and still are, capable of inflicting the cruelest of punishments on the defenseless and downtrodden.
In many ways, we’re all complicit when war and tragedy are allowed full reign, simply by virtue of our shared humanity and the decisions we make.
For we often find ourselves living the consequences of these harmful, deadly decisions, long after they are all but forgotten.
Or maybe, precisely because these consequences reflect our dark sides, most cultures with their own histories of genocide (and we know there are) would rather forget. Or at least work hard to ensure the rest of the world forgets.
Boyne the author clearly did not forget.
Why I like this sequel
In vivid memories told in this sequel as a first-person account, Boyne’s lead character Gretel painfully takes us once more through the horror that is the Holocaust.
Despite escaping Germany, — first to France then Australia, and finally London — Gretel’s past continues to haunt her for the rest of her life in ways both unexpected and shocking.
I love how Boyne deftly interspersed the narrative between both timelines. One timeline was Gretel’s encounters with Jews and Jew-sympathisers in her teens and 20s, while in France and Australia. The other the post-Covid modern-day “tyrants” she met in her 90s while living a reclused life in an uptown London apartment.
Granted, the reader could skip every other chapter to stay on one timeline’s story (which I did for a while). But you soon realize the folly of doing so, even as you discover his genius for so doing.
For Boyne was able to pull out some shocking revelations and nifty surprises, especially in the second half of the novel, making the book a gripping page-turner right up til the end.
What I learned from Gretel
Though the Holocaust and its devastations stayed in the background through most of this book, it’s clear from Gretel’s struggles that she could not escape her unfortunate connection with it.
After all, she was the sole survivor of a family that commandeered atrocities forever linked to the name Auschwitz. Despite keeping her distance both geographically and linguistically in the years following the death of Bruno, her father, and later her mother who escaped to France with her, Gretel never felt fully free to live a new life.
Her sense of guilt and isolation prevented her from forming deep relationships, even with the husband and son she eventually had.
Somehow, everywhere she turned, she found reminders of what to her were signposts of her part as her father’s daughter for the senseless deaths of so many.
While I realize my life is nowhere close to Gretel’s (thank goodness), I too can understand how guilt and regret can keep one prisoner for years and years.
But what I learned from her in this book was this: no matter how long it takes, it’s still possible to rewrite the story of our lives as one of hope and redemption, instead of loneliness and guilt.
And all it takes could very well be one brave, selfless, sacrificial moment to right a wrong, even if it costs you everything.
And though I hope I never have the exact brave moment Gretel had at the end of the book, I too hope I can find closure as she did.
One that would end my own sense of guilt and remorse all these years.
It’s probably what we all hope for at the end of our days.
One thought on “Fiction Book Review #4 – All The Broken Places”
Fictional books that cover the Holocaust are always interesting, in that I learn so much about the world that I was so far apart from. Being in Asia, we never really learned much about what happened in the West. The Book Thief was one interesting story that eased me into the subject. Of course, non-fiction books like Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning gave me an even better picture of the horrors that happened. I might just check this book out.