Jodi Picoult has a knack for tackling big, controversial issues and winding them into compelling, emotional stories. Although never shying away from serious topics, The Storyteller looks at what is surely one of the most vast and daunting subject matter she has covered yet. The Holocaust.
In The Storyteller, Picoult uses her usual tactic of multi-person narrative, to not only provide us with the story from multiple points of view, but with a rich tapestry of tales from other times and other countries. It all starts off with Sage Singer. Sage is a 25-year-old baker who works during the night and sleeps during the day; a lifestyle she has adopted in order to avoid being seen in public as much as possible. This is due to the fact that she has some facial scarring from a car accident she was involved in in which her mother died. The combination of guilt over the fact she was driving at the time and the shame of her scars has led her to living a fairly isolated life; only really seeing her friends and colleagues at the bakery and her boyfriend, the local funeral director, who happens to be married. The one thing she does do once a week without fail is visit a grief group, where she is able to talk about the loss of her mother.
At the grief group she meets Josef Weber, a retired nonagenarian who has lived an active life within their New Hampshire community as a sports coach at the local school. She and Josef both live relatively solitary lives, troubled with ghosts from their past, and so they forge a strange friendship. Until one day, Josef confesses that he is an ex SS officer, and asks her to help him die.
It’s here that the story starts to really get interesting. I’ve got to admit – I didn’t warm that much to Sage’s character, and I feel the issues surrounding her past were never truly explored. But as soon as Josef launches into the tale of his journey from a care-free German schoolboy to a brutal, murderous Nazi, I was gripped.
And it gets better from there. Sage is determined that Josef faces justice for the crimes he has committed, and so she enlists the help of Justice of Department representative, Leo. They need a first person identification of Josef from his Nazi days, and so Sage suggests they approach her grandmother, Minka. Minka is a Auschwitz survivor, although it’s something she and Sage have never really discussed. But when Sage and Leo ask her to open up in order to assist in justice being done she, reluctantly, obliges.
It is Minka’s story which is really the heart and soul of this book. I could have read it as a stand-alone story. Beautifully written, the author takes us on a journey of World War 2 through the eyes of a plucky teenage Jewish girl living in war-torn Poland. We follow from her life as a happy-go-lucky schoolgirl and budding writer with a close, happy family, through to the tension living in the ghetto in Lodz, to her gruelling time in the horrific concentration camps.
The Storyteller shows us that everybody can have a story to tell. While Sage has known her grandmother her entire life, she has never really known her story. And whilst Josef appears to be a perfectly innocent old man, as his story unfolds it becomes evident that there is much more to him than it first appears. It also explores themes of forgiveness as Sage grapples with her feelings towards Josef and asks – can we forgive someone who has committed crimes against others? Do we even have the right to offer that absolution?
Above all, this is a brilliant story. It contains a shocking twist in the last few pages which will have you reeling, as is Picoult’s trademark style. She never fails to disappoint.
The Storyteller is impressively well-researched and beautifully written. I’ve been reading Jodi Picoult books for years and over that time she really has mastered her craft as a writer. While I’m not sure if The Storyteller is my personal favourite of hers, I do think it is most well written and accomplished novel she has produced to date.