John Boyne pictured by Bill Heaney at the Edinburgh Book Festival
All The Broken Places by author of bestselling Holocaust novel is out in September
The original novel, which the author has described as a fable based on the Holocaust, has sold more than 11 million copies since it was published in 2006 and has been published in 57 languages, making it the most translated Irish novel of all time. The film adaptation in 2008 grossed more than $44 million.
The novel relates the horror of a Nazi extermination camp through the eyes of two eight-year-old boys: Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commander, and Shmuel, a Jewish prisoner.
Its sequel, All The Broken Places, spans from 1946 to the present and focuses on Gretel, Bruno’s older sister, now 91 years old but still struggling with her war-scarred memories, her grief and her guilt.
Discussing the work on RTÉ Radio, Boyne told Ryan Tubridy: “While many might wonder how on earth a novel like this could have a sequel, given its ending, I’ve been planning this for 16 years.” He had planned to write the sequel as his final book at the end of his career but lockdown changed his mind.
“Maybe it’s brave or maybe it’s stupid. I agreed with my editor, one thing you don’t want to do is let the original book down. I think it does justice to the original story and the subject matter.”
In January 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland, Boyne used his Twitter account to criticise what he perceived as a dubious trend of apparently formulaic publishing about the Holocaust, accompanied by an image of seven books: The Mistress of Auschwitz, The Brothers of Auschwitz, The Child of Auschwitz, The Sisters of Auschwitz, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Librarian of Auschwitz and The Saboteur of Auschwitz.
As Patrick Freyne reported at the time in The Irish Times, the most notable response came from the Auschwitz Memorial’s Twitter account: “We understand those concerns, and we already addressed inaccuracies in some books published. However, [John Boyne’s book] The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust”.
They linked to an article on an educational site, run by the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, which criticised Boyne’s story of the friendship between a Jewish child and the son of a Nazi officer, as historically inaccurate. The author declared that he had declined to read this article because of three minor inaccuracies in the first paragraph.
Discussing the issue with Tubridy, the author rejected the presenter’s description of the Twitter engagement as a spat.
“Fiction can’t be factually inaccurate. If you’re going to write about factual inaccuracies in a novel it might be nice to get your facts right and there were three inaccuracies in the first paragraph.
“There was no spat. People make this up online. It’s not that the Auschwitz Memorial criticised the book [as a novel], it’s that they didn’t recommend that it be used in schools as a history lesson as it’s a fable. [But]we do use Animal Farm in classrooms to talk about the Russian Revolution.
“As a novelist you don’t set out to write a textbook. If schools then choose to use it in classrooms that’s up to them but it is then incumbent on teachers to explain to children this is not exactly the way it was. If you’re interested, here are the books you should read.”
The author said that if you are going to write about the Holocaust, you have to have a fresh take on it, which he felt his novel had achieved. “One thing that can’t be denied is 16 years later we are still talking about it. Most novels get forgotten.”
Boyne said that while he was expecting some criticism on social media, he would not be engaging with it.
“If I have learned one thing at all over the past year, particularly since the publication of My Brother’s Name Is Jessica [his 2019 novel with a trans character], it is that there is nothing to be gained by arguing with people. The book can stand or fall on its own merits. I am perfectly aware that the news will have the usual antagonists on Twitter but they are screaming into a void because I am going out for a walk, I’m not going to be listening to any of it. I’ll discuss this with people in September when they have read the book.”