I’m upset with this one.
All the pieces were there for a moving redemption arc at the end of the book, but instead Boyne has Gretel do something totally out of character in committing an act of premeditated murder.
Throughout the book, we discover Gretel to be an incredibly moral person, plagued by the weight of her family’s sins during the second world war, and struggling to break free of the past and start a new life. She moves from place to place, always running away… but from what exactly? As we get to know Gretel a bit better, we discover that she is in fact running away from herself. Perhaps those people who stay in the land in which they were born are those most comfortable in their skin – they are grateful for what they have and don’t need any more. I tend to fall into that other category: running away from home, seeing what’s out there, but also, sometimes, running away from myself. But the paradox is that the farther away we run, the closer we get to ourselves. As the psalmist has it, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
And coming face-to-face with ourselves is ultimately a confrontation with G-d.
I hoped that at the end of the book there would be some resolution. Instead, Gretel perpetuates her ancestors’ sins and fails to learn from their mistakes.
Because we are not the ones to judge. We have no right to condemn. Only G-d has that right. But even He, in all his power and might, decides not to condemn us. As Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
We live in a time painfully devoid of mercy. It is a time of cynicism and suspicion, where rather than lifting each other up and trying to see what we can build together if we help one another, all too often we seek to tear one another down. Such a way of relating to one another can only lead to destruction and ultimately self-annihilation.
We are designed for connection. To quote Bono in the U2 song One, “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” He continues, “We’ve got to carry each other, carry each other.” We can’t do it all on our own. We need one another. But none of us is perfect. We are all sinners. We all make mistakes. “We hurt each other, then we do it again,” to quote again from the same song.
How can we bear the weight of our own sin? I have wrestled with this question for a long time. I, like Gretel, come from a German family who may well have played some part in the atrocities of the second world war. Reading this book, for the first time it made the events of the war real to me. Before reading this book, I had only considered the victims of the holocaust and of the war in the abstract: the victims ‘in general’. I had never considered the effects that the holocaust had on individual lives. And this is what we so often fail to do: to consider the individual. To come face-to-face with the other. Because it is easier to hide away in philosophical abstractions – to remain confined within the walls of the self. But when we come face-to-face with the other, there is no such thing as philosophising. There is only vulnerability, honesty, openness. We are compelled to lay aside our pretensions and we can only see the other for who he or she truly is. We become naked before the other – not physically, but spiritually. It is a spiritual nakedness which is far more vulnerable than any other sort of nakedness. Which leaves us open to being wounded. Which is risky. But it is the only way to truly live.
For much of the past year, I have wrestled with my Christian heritage. To all appearances, it seemed inferior to that more ancient, more deeply rooted, more self-critical faith of the Jews. Where the Jews have the Talmud, the Christians have heresy; where the Jews have poetry, the Christians have crusades. And all the forced conversions throughout history, all the antisemitism, the weight of the sins of Christendom. Why should I possibly want to be a Christian? After all, wasn’t Jesus himself a Jew? It seemed to me much more attractive, much more appealing to me.
Judaism is the religion of listening. To the Jews G-d spoke “not in the wind” but in the “still small voice”, or the “gentle whisper”, as some translations put it. To the Jews, G-d has a voice and He speaks to those who will listen in the stillness of the heart.
Then who is Christ? Christ is G-d with a face. Christ is G-d with a gentle gaze, who looks upon his sheep with tenderness, with gentleness, with mercy, with generosity, with forgiveness, with compassion. Christ does not come to abolish the law, the faith of his parents and his forefather, King David, but to fulfil the law. He speaks with the Jewish voice, but he brings with this voice a face. For the first time in history, man could see G-d face-to-face.
And how does this relate to this book?
When we hurt the other person, when we dehumanise her, when we treat her as “nothing but an animal”, as the line often goes in this book, we sin against G-d. We have failed to see the face of G-d in the face of the other. But when we see the other face-to-face, when we take in her expression, we cannot but be moved to tears. When we see deep inside of the other, and we see past the animosity and the suspicion and the hatred to see a wounded soul, a scared child, a human struggling to grieve her losses, we have no choice but to weep with our sister and ask for her forgiveness, ask for her mercy, and give thanks to G-d for our fraternity.
That was what was missing in this book. Recognition of oneself in the other. The opportunity was there, where Gretel and the abusive father next door (forgotten his name) went into the garden together for a private conversation. Why not have them look each other in the eye and have each recognise his or her brokenness in the other? Why not have mercy on oneself by having mercy on the other? I longed for reconciliation. What we got instead is retribution. Where man makes himself “judge and executor”. All this does is perpetuate the cycle of scapegoating and revenge that Gretel had inherited from her parents.
Apart from this missed opportunity, I have to say that the character of Gretel is written very well. Boyne captures with great accuracy the turmoil of a heavy conscience and how it destroys the life of the perpetrator. We see in this book how it is not only the victim of a sin or crime that suffers, but also the perpetrator. Because when we sin against the other, we corrupt our own soul. Gretel struggles to break free and hopes that an act of retribution will restore her conscience. But in the end it only perpetuates the cycle.
As much as I am disappointed in the way the book ended, I cannot help but praise the way Boyne wrote the character of Gretel. For many years he has been one of my favourite authors. He describes well the inner turmoil that descends upon many of us at different points in our lives – I have never forgotten the characters in A History of Loneliness and The Heart’s Invisible Furies. He is a master at themes of guilt, regret and complicity. I hope that he can find the place in his heart to put a bit of mercy in his future books – as I have no doubt that he will continue to produce such insightful novels for a long time.
Thank you for reading this humble review. Best wishes.