A new John Boyne title is always a reading highlight for me. I’ve read 7 of his up to now, 4 of which have ended up in my end of year Top 10s. I was both thrilled and made nervous by his decision to write a sequel to his most famous and my 2nd favourite of his, (“The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is probably still my most loved book of the 21st Century so far), “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) which I read in 2018 when it was runner up in my Books Of The Year to “The Count Of Monte Cristo.”
It is such an impressively self-contained piece that it seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary book to have a sequel. In his Author’s Note John Boyne says he’s been mulling the idea over for years and the isolation of lockdown felt like the right time. The question for me was, did I want to revisit these characters in another setting?
This is the first-person narrative of Gretel, the sister to Bruno, main character in “Striped Pyjamas” and it follows a dual narrative, one which moves through time from the end of World War II and one taking place in modern day London. Here, Gretel is a sprightly 91 year old living in a smart apartment in Winterville Court, overlooking Hyde Park, the other narrative explores how Gretel has reached this point in her life.
Unsurprisingly, the central theme in the novel is guilt. Gretel has got to 91 living daily with her family’s involvement in the hostilities in the place Bruno thought was called “Out-With”. The immediate post-war years saw a need for re-invention in different locations until she settles in London.
My dilemma here, and I think this will be the case for many readers, is Gretel. She is realistically rather than sympathetically drawn but I couldn’t help rooting for her and I struggled whether this was the right response, and this was likely to be the author’s intention. Obviously she has got to an old age thousands were deprived of and there are some extraordinary moments in her past which will stop you in your tracks and will fundamentally change the way you feel about this character in “Striped Pyjamas” and Boyne does extremely well to also convey her effectively as an elderly woman still struggling after many decades to come to terms with her past.
Supporting characters do not seem as well drawn as in other of this author’s novels (especially in the contemporary section) but we are seeing them from Gretel’s perspective and words and she is very wrapped up in herself, so perhaps this is appropriate. As “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” builds to a big twist there are a couple of those along the way for those readers looking for a big reveal.
I did enjoy this and wanted to know what was going on but my ongoing niggle as to whether a sequel was necessary was unresolved and so I take that as meaning that this book is not as Essential as “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”. All of the now 8 Boyne works I have read have had something in them to enrich my life but this for me does not quite make it into my Top 5 of his novels. It is thought-provoking and at times really gripping but remains slightly in the shadow of his 2006 masterpiece.
All The Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th 2022. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.