The novel moves between different timelines in four separate sections – Paris and Rouen in 1946, Australia in 1950 and London in 1953 – and in each section the past is interleaved with the present day setting of London which runs through them all as a constant.The present-day Gretel is a spry, wealthy 91 year-old widow, who never talks about her past, and who lives in a Mayfair apartment building. When a new family moves into the flat below hers, their nine-year-old son Henry brings back memories she would rather forget, and when she witnesses a violent argument between Henry’s mother and his domineering father, events ultimately threaten her hard-won, self-contained existence.
The story is told from Gretel’s perspective throughout, and we see how her self-containment is born of an all-consuming fear that her real identity and personal history will be discovered and exposed. On top of the terror, she has inner mental struggles which run on a permanent loop in her head.
Gretel is a very complex, multi-layered character. Boyne has drawn and developed her so well. She is no saint, she is very much human, with all the attending virtues, contradictions and flaws. She is capable of both kindness and cruelty, selflessness and selfishness, insight and ignorance, naivety and wisdom.
All the nuances of Gretel’s past history and actions are explored as the story unfolds. She has travelled the world looking for answers to questions which she cannot resolve and sometimes barely even formulate: how much have the events of her Nazi childhood and upbringing influenced her subsequent life; what is the true extent of her guilt and complicity in relation to what went on in Auschwitz under her father’s command and her cowardice at doing nothing about it, either then or since; why can’t she accept and acknowledge the truth not only of her involvement, but of the absolute trauma, destruction, pain and death visited upon Jews in Europe by the Reich; what was the extent of her onetime fascination with power and her idolisation of Hitler; how much is she to blame for Bruno’s death. Such deep and dreadful questions.
Over the course of the novel she works through all of them to reach a point where she can honestly confront the past and acknowledge the truth of all of it, finally accept responsibility, and attempt to find some degree of absolution in one final brave and selfless act of atonement for the sake of another 9 year old boy.
This is a beautifully written immersive novel from a master story-teller, that keeps you turning the pages to discover what will happen, and there are some very surprising and unexpected twists along the way. Whilst it could feasibly be read as a stand-alone I think the reader will get far more from it and pick up on more of the nuances if they have already read TBITSP. The intended audience for this sequel is clearly adults rather than the top junior/YA audience for TBITSP and the tone and feel is quite different. Whilst it does not have the same absolute gut-punch of an ending as TBITSP, it is still a satisfying and “just” one.
It is an extremely powerful, emotional and moving story about power, guilt, complicity, culpability, forgiveness and atonement. It explores really fundamental questions about human nature and morality – if you do nothing to prevent evil acts and just look away, are you just as bad as the people committing them? Can you ever atone for these evil acts, especially if you are closely associated with the perpetrators through the close ties of family, love and loyalty? How tainted are you by these association?
It leaves you with much to think about, and would be perfect for book groups and buddy reads. Highly recommended