Although this novel is complete in itself, I highly recommend that you first read its predecessor, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Both bring a unique perspective to a subject that has inspired mountains of literature: Nazi Germany.
Gretel Fernsby, a 91-year-old widow, lives in an exclusive London apartment building where a new family has leased the flat below her. As she gets acquainted with the mother and her son, their disturbing problems recall the loss of Gretel’s brother during World War II and her lifelong effort to conceal her inadvertent role in the Holocaust.
Leaping backward and forward in time, the author recounts Gretel’s experiences as a child whose father ran one of the Third Reich’s most notorious concentration camps. For eighty years she has battled conflicting feelings about her parents and grieved so deeply for her brother that she cannot bring herself to speak his name.
In her memoir Gretel repeatedly comes face to face with the past, most intensely in her reunion with an ex-German guard, and in her romance with a Jewish survivor. Now old, she wants only to be left alone. But the abusive relationship going on in the flat below her forces Gretel to choose between her own safety and her sense of morality.
To me the most disturbing scene is Gretel’s discussion with the unrepentant guard, who rationalizes his role in the Holocaust as though he was a victim of forces beyond his control. In challenging Gretel to admit her buried patriotism, he speaks for all Germans who today struggle with their nation’s dark history.
Although its numerous instances of offensive language prevent me from awarding it a five-star rating, All the Broken Places is an important reflection on human nature. I could not read it without asking myself what I would do had I been placed in Gretel’s position.