All the Broken Places by John Boyne
Published by Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: November 29, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
What better way to start the last month of 2022 then with a 5 ⭐️ book. It’s John Boyne’s mesmerizing novel, All the Broken Places. Where some novels entertain by skating along the surface, this book plumbs the deepest depths of the human psyche, hunting the meaning of complicity during one of history’s darkest chapters.
Gretel is a widow in her 90s living in a luxury apartment in London. Her life is simple and she keeps it that way with only visits from her oft married (and divorced) son, Caden, and her friendship with the younger widow across the hall. Until the apartment below her is sold to a couple with the potential noise-making of a 9-year-old son. Thankfully, Henry turns out to be a quiet boy who loves to read in the building’s courtyard. His parents, an actress and a director, are a different story and Gretel finds herself drawn into a disturbing amount of family drama.
Much of All the Broken Places is complex and uncomfortable, but Boyne parses the timelines neatly to ease transitions. Chapters are split between present day London and the various locales of the past, including Paris where Gretel and her mother escaped in 1946. This bifurcation is handled with subtlety, allowing the Gretel that was to unspool against the Gretel that is.
That she is unlikable is no surprise. It’s acknowledged in the book’s synopsis that her father was the commandant of Auschwitz. She was 12 when they lived outside the camp, but had some understanding of it. What is just as unsettling is the sense of menace she inspires from the very beginning. This could make for a one-note character, but Boyne is not a writer to take the easy way out. Yes, Gretel has spent a lifetime in a set piece of wealth and solitude designed to hide the ugly truth of her own actions. But despite the defenses, denials, and rationalizations that follow her through the years it becomes clear that she is haunted by her past. The ease she exudes is a façade.
The Holocaust is enough of a subject to carry a novel by itself, but in Boyne’s hands All the Broken Places unfolds into layers of the human experience that go far beyond the war. His gift for the nuances of human frailty, seamlessly harnessed with a compelling plot and unforeseen twists makes All the Broken Places an extraordinary story that engulfs the reader.
If you’d like more all-encompassing reading from John Boyne I highly recommend The Heart’s Invisible Furies.
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