Who knows the secrets a mild-mannered neighbour might have?

Review: Vivien Horler

All the Broken Places, by John Boyne (Penguin Books)

Gretel Fernsby is a widow in her 90s, living in a pleasant flat in London’s Mayfair, and leading an ordered life. She keeps herself to herself, has few friends and rarely speaks of her past.

Gretel has a secret, which she has spent all her life trying to hide. She was born in Berlin before the outbreak of World War II, but tells the few people who might need to know that she had grown up in France.

This is because she is “the devil’s daughter”, and even 80 years on she suspects if her past were uncovered, it would be all over the newspapers.

She says, in the opening sentence of this novel: “If every man is guilty of all the good he did not do, as Voltaire suggested, then I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that I am innocent of all the bad.”

It has been convenient, she says, to see herself as “a victim of historical amnesia, acquitted from complicity, and exonerated from blame”.

Gretel, then 15, and her mother flee Germany in early 1946, not long after the war ends, and settle in France. Not with them are Gretel’s younger brother, who died during the war, and her father, who had been hanged for war crimes.

Gretel’s father, it emerges, was an SS officer and the commandant of Auschwitz, where more than a million people, most of them Jews, were murdered.

How do you live with that? What level of guilt might you have, should you have, if you were 12 years old at the time?

When the novel opens, in the present, Gretel has just heard she is to get a new neighbour. There are only five flats in the block, and so the prospect is a somewhat alarming one.  The flat downstairs has been sold after the death of its occupant, a man to whom Gretel had not spoken for about 15 years. She considers this a perfect neighbourly relationship.

But the family who move in are quite different. There is the husband, a self-confident film producer, his somewhat flaky wife who is given to overly intimate confidences and dramatic gestures – not Gretel’s style at all – and their son Henry, who is about 11.

At first Gretel is not pleased to hear a child will be moving in, but she later comes to realise Henry is the best of the bunch.

It emerges quite soon that the husband abuses both his wife and Henry – when she meets Henry has a broken arm – putting Gretel into a terrible dilemma: it is against a lifetime’s habit to interfere in the affairs of others, but she feels crippling guilt about her brother’s death and knows there can’t be a repeat of what she did – or didn’t do – then.

Interspersed with Gretel’s present, her dilemma and her rage at her son who thinks it would be a good idea if she sold the flat and moved to a retirement home, letting him have an advance on his inheritance, there are flashbacks to Gretel’s earlier life, first in Paris with her mother, which comes to a dreadful end, then to a brief attempt to make a new life for herself in Sydney, before she eventually settles in London.

We also read about her childhood, and the years spent in what she refers to only as “the other place” in Poland. There, despite being just 12, she has a crush on Kurt, a young SS officer and her father’s assistant.

As a child she has only a dim understanding on what is going on in Auschwitz, but as she gets older the full horror of it all and her father’s involvement becomes something she does her best to to put out of her mind.

But this of course impossible, and the truth eventually leads to the destruction of her relationship with her British fiancé. Her subsequent husband knows the truth, but possibly not all of it, and her son knows very little.

But it’s there, and discoverable, if someone were sufficiently determined to find it. Which it appears the film producer might be.

This is a self-contained sequel to the best-selling The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. It is, as you’d expect from John Boyne, a well plotted, absorbing story of war, the long shadow it casts, and the compromises one often has to make. The book is occasionally harrowing, often witty, and a very good read.

  • This was one of Exclusive Bools’ top reads for October.

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