The Storyteller – by Jodi Picoult
Ah, Jodi. Her books have been worldwide bestsellers, in the vein of authors such as Nicholas Sparks or a more maudlin Marian Keyes. I picked up an ARC of The Storyteller from work. It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything of Picoult’s: here’s what I thought of her latest.
Sage Singer has had a difficult couple of years. She’s an artisan baker, working nights, which allows her to avoid other people seeing the scar she received in a car accident. Sage allows very few people into her life. When the elderly Josef Weber starts to befriend her, no one is more surprised than Sage that she enjoys his company and doesn’t mind him seeing her face. But Josef has a secret – he has a scar of his own. And his scar may be nothing compared to the scars he has caused others. Josef has an agenda behind his friendship with Sage: he asks if she will hear his story, forgive him his sins, and then help him die.
Now, I’m going to put in a nice big SPOILER ALERT here. I don’t usually spoil too much in my reviews but its necessary here. So, if you’re going to read The Storyteller and don’t want to know anything about Josef’s past, please stop here. Generally, parts of this book worked for me and parts felt like something I’d read before.
Joseph Weber was a Nazi. He was a teen in the 1930s, growing up as a member of the Hitler Youth and going on to find great success in the SS, and a position at Auschwitz. He wants Sage to hear his story because Sage is a Jew – by birth if not by belief – and he hopes that her forgiveness can be something like forgiveness from those he so badly wronged during the Holocaust.
As is often the case in Jodi Picoult books, we soon discover that Sage’s Jewish grandmother was also alive during WWII and the Holocaust. As a Polish Jew, her experiences during the war were infinitely more terrible.
Sage doesn’t know what to think, or do, when Josef reveals his past. She has a few huge decisions to make about the nature of evil, the limits or otherwise of forgiveness, and what her own role will be in this story.
I had mixed feelings about this book. I find Picoult’s work is like formulaic crime writing. There will inevitably be a cast of damaged characters, each with their own tragic background. These characters will, over the course of the novel, clash in the most heart-wrenching ways possible. There will be ethical dilemmas, many opposing and equally valid points of view, and no clear morally correct course of action. While these can be powerful and compelling elements of a story, they’ve been done: and more to the point, they’ve been done by Picoult. Much like a good crime novel, the familiarity of plot devices like this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good story: but I found the inevitability of the plot twists lessened the emotional impact of The Storyteller, because I’ve seen this before.
On the other hand, I was absolutely enthralled by both Josef and Minka’s recollections of life under the Nazi regime. This is undoubtedly one of the most horrifying, compelling and tragic periods in recent history, and the impact on those who were there can’t ever be fully understood. Josef’s story was of a young man finally finding a place where he fit in; excelled, even, and where he was then cemented throughout the rest of the war. Minka tells of a young girl and a family knowing that things weren’t right but making the best of each new level of abuse, and ultimately living through one of the most horrific experiences imaginable. Here, Picoult’s writing drew me in and kept me up until 2am, in the ghetto and in the camp, starving and sore, terrified and then numb.
So, while the modern day of Picoult’s The Storyteller didn’t grab me, because of the inevitability of her narrative, the stories-within-the-story, from Josef and especially from Minka, were more than enough to keep me reading. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Picoult’s work, and those who, like me, are drawn in by tales of WWII and the tragedies that rocked people throughout.
Have you read anything by Jodi Picoult? How do you find authors who stick to a certain formula in their writing?