Sunday, 10 February 2013

Book Review: THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller

Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Read: February 04-09, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

An astonishing novel about redemption and forgiveness from number-one bestselling author Jodi Picoult.
Sage Singer is a young woman who has been damaged by her past. Her solitary night work as a baker allows her to hide from the world and focus her creative energies on the beautiful bread she bakes.
Yet she finds herself striking up an unlikely friendship. Josef Weber is a quiet, grandfatherly man, well respected in the community; everyone's favourite retired teacher and Little League coach.
One day he asks Sage for a favour: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses.
Then Josef tells her that he deserves to die - and why.
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed horrendous acts ever truly redeem themselves? Is forgiveness yours to offer if you aren't the person who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - would it be murder, or justice?

My thoughts:

Jodi Picoult’s latest book, The Storyteller, is a dual time novel, partly set in the present and partly during World War II. Weaving together the stories of several different characters, Picoult creates a powerful tale exploring several fundamental moral and ethical dilemmas arising from the human condition. Are there crimes so horrible they can never be forgiven, even if the person has shown remorse and tried to redeem himself? Is it justice to take a life for a life, or does it make you a killer? Is evil inherent, or can it be created by the environment we live in? Picoult tackles these issues sensitively and bravely, not shying away from exploring all angles to these questions.

The novel opens with the character of Sage Singer, a reclusive young woman scarred in an accident and recently bereaved by the death of her mother. Estranged from her sisters and her peers, she befriends an old man, Josef Weber, at her local grief-counselling group. The friendship is tested, however, when one day Josef asks Sage a favour - to kill him. Sage is shocked and repelled when Josef, a much beloved upstanding citizen in the community, confesses horrific crimes he has committed during World War II as a leading SS officer at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Haunted by those memories he says he deserves to die.

Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is a Holocaust survivor who has never spoken to her family about the things she had to endure as a young girl during the war. Rounded up and sent with her family to the Łódź Ghetto and later Auschwitz, Minka was the only one of her family to survive to see the liberation of the concentration camps by the allies at the end of WWII. When Sage involves a federal agent investigating war crimes to look into Josef Weber’s history, and bring him to justice, Minka must confront her past once again.

The story weaves together narratives by all the characters involved, including a fictional character who played a crucial part in Minka’s survival and provides a kind of fable which helped Minka make sense of the terrible events she had to endure.

Picoult’s descriptions of life in the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz ring true and paint a vivid – and therefore often gruesome – picture of a young Jewish girl’s life during the war. In The Storyteller Picoult’s skills as a writer shine through once again, stirring up strong emotions and inviting the reader to explore the themes exposed in the story, where there are no easy answers. I thought that giving Josef Weber a voice was very brave, and it shows that there is a human side even to persons we may perceive as monsters due to the heinous crimes they have committed. At the same time, Picoult doesn’t make excuses, nor does she pass judgment – instead, the topic is explored in several ways, like this dialogue between Sage and Josef:

[Sage] Can you blame the Nazi who was born into an anti-semitic country and given an anti-semitic eduction, who grows up and slaughters five thousand jews? Yes. Yes, you can. […]
“I just don’t understand how you did it,” I say, into the silence. “How you lived a normal life, and pretended none of this ever happened.”“It is amazing, what you can make yourself believe, when you have to,” Josef says.

And later, in Minka’s fictional tale, the character of Aleks says to Ania:
“It turns out that the more you repeat the same action, no matter how reprehensible, the more you make an excuse for it in your own mind.”

The themes of justice vs retribution, forgiveness vs hate and the bonds of the past on future generations are themes which stayed with me long after finishing this book. I have personally met Holocaust survivors, and am constantly amazed by their resilience and positive attitude after such tragedy, and the ability of many to forgive their perpetrators. I take my hat off to Picoult for being able to create an authentic character such as Minka, who reflects this perfectly. With Minka, she gives a voice to many Holocaust survivors, making sure that that part of history is not forgotten, whilst inspiring the reader to think for themselves.

The only reason I didn’t give the book five stars is that I found it very hard initially to warm to Sage. Having found her last couple of books a bit lacklustre and uninspiring, I very nearly cast this book into the “same old, same old” category without giving it a proper chance, only reading on because I was interested in the subject matter. However, as soon as Minka’s tale took over, I was riveted, and sat up late into the night unable to put it down. Picoult’s trademark twist at the end was clever, though not totally unexpected – which brought the novel to a fitting finale.

If like me you have been underawed by Picoult’s last novel, “Lone Wolf”, I very strongly recommend giving her another chance and picking up “The Storyteller”. You won’t be disappointed.

Thank you to the publisher Allen & Unwin for providing me with an advanced reading copy of this novel. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are strictly my own.

This book also forms part of my 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - "published in 2013".

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I completely agree, when Minka's story started up, the book really took off for me. Couldn't put it down. Glad to hear this one clicked for you!