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Monday, March 4, 2013

'The Storyteller' by Jodi Picoult

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

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?

Grief is meant to come in stages, but for Sage Singer, her mother’s death is a lingering torment that has turned her into a recluse. She has no contact with her two sisters; sure they blame her for their mother’s death. She has taken a graveyard-shift job at Our Daily Bread, baking with her grandmother’s recipes. And she has become tangled in a love affair with a married man - their relationship a convenient hide-away from the rest of the world. 

Now, Sage attends a grief group to work through her pain. It is here that she meets Josef Weber – an elderly man, popular in the community, who is trying to cope with his widowhood since his wife’s passing. The two strike up an unlikely friendship – and fall into a routine of nightly meetings at Our Daily Bread, where they talk and find comfort in one another.

But then Josef asks a favour of Sage – something so horrible, it sends her reeling and questioning if he had ulterior motives all along … Because Josef wants Sage to kill him. 

Josef reasons that he is an old, healthy man and his death is taking too long without someone to help him end things. And, of course, he deserves to die. Because Josef was once a member of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Totenkopf – a division of the Nazi Waffen-SS. 

Now Sage questions all of Josef’s kindly words, his easy friendship with her. He has come to Sage, of the only Jewish family in their predominantly Anglo-community, to end his life and beg forgiveness for past sins. Sins, Sage can barely begin to comprehend – but her grandmother can. 

Sage’s grandmother, Minka, was a Holocaust survivor. A Polish Jew, she lived in the ghettos with her family during the war, but it wasn’t long before tragedy struck and Minka’s family was ruined … and then she was put on a train to Auschwitz.

Confused and angered by Josef’s confession and his audacious request, Sage begins the lengthy process of finding someone to report him to – and she is eventually directed to the FBI, and Leo Stein of the Justice Department. It is Leo’s job to hunt down War Criminals of World War II, and bring them to justice. But he is racing against time – many of the Nazi party are either dead or dying, and all have been so deep in hiding for so many years… running from their corrupted pasts. 

‘The Storyteller’ is the new novel by Jodi Picoult.

Oradour-sur-Glane was a small commune in west-central France. On June 10, 1944 a German Waffen-SS company tore through the village, massacring 642 of its inhabitants and leaving very few survivors. All women and children were herded into the town’s Church while soldiers looted. The men, meanwhile, were led to six barns where machine guns were already in place; soldiers shot at legs first, not killing the villagers, but wounding them so they could not escape. They then set the barns and church on fire – anyone who tried to flee through the windows and doors met with machine-gun fire.

Oradour-sur-Glane remains one of the worst massacres of the Second World War – so horrendous was the destruction of this town, that a new village was built on a nearby site, and French president, Charles de Gaulle, declared the original village be maintained as a permanent memorial and museum. And the ruins remain, to be remembered.  

In 1953 there was a tribunal into the surviving 65 of the 200 German soldiers involved in the massacre. But the trial was a complex one, for the nationalities and ethnicities of the soldiers involved, and refusals to extradite. More trials were conducted in 1958 and 1983. And, just this year, it has been announced that German investigators have again opened a new inquiry into the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre after new evidence was uncovered in the archived files of Germany’s Stasi Secret Police. 

I mention Oradour-sur-Glane because (as with all Picoult stories) a central conundrum touched upon in ‘The Storyteller’ is whether or not Josef deserves to be punished, and if he can/should be forgiven for his past sins - just as many question whether too much time has passed for another investigation into the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre. 

One of the best scenes that addresses this thought-provoking issue is between Leo and a blind-date – a woman who doesn’t really ‘get’ what Leo does for a living, or why it’s such a big deal to jail these old guys who did wrong years ago. Leo’s fiery explanation is a stand-out; 


“The Nazis didn’t just target Jews. They also killed Gypsies and Poles and homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled. Everyone should be invested in what my department does. Because if we’re not, what message is America sending to people who commit genocide? That they can get away with it, if enough time passes? They can hide inside our borders without even a slap on the wrist? We routinely deport hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens every year whose sole offence is that they overstayed a visa or came without the right paperwork – but people who were involved in crimes against humanity get to stay? And die peacefully here? And be buried on American soil?”

I think it should also be thought about in a modern-context. Think if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t been found and killed in 2011. I imagine you could have asked any American – 10, 20, 30 years since 9/11 – if the US Government should still expend forces to hunt him down, and they would have answered with a resounding ‘yes’. Now I think of the few survivors of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, nearly 70 years later, and they still speak of waiting for justice. And I can understand why. 

This question of redemption/forgiveness is a central focus of ‘The Storyteller’ – made even more complex when Picoult spends the entire middle of the novel in Minka’s point-of-view, first in the Jewish ghetto and then during her harrowing time at Auschwitz. Minka is, undoubtedly, the most compelling of all the narratives in the book – and by comparison the contemporary voices of Josef, Leo and Sage sometimes felt undercooked. 

Also interspersed throughout the book is the unfolding story that Minka had been writing since she was a young girl, dreaming of being a novelist. It is a tale of vampires and monsters, and as Minka revisited the story after surviving Auschwitz, it became an allegory for the real horrors and beasts she faced down. I will say that this was a part of the book that didn’t work for me – it became one of too many voices, between Josef, Minka, Leo, Sage and then this third-person story heaped on top. I would have preferred if Picoult had spent more time in the present, with Minka speaking to her granddaughter – though I understand that talking about her time in the War was too hard, so she gave Sage her story as a compensation of sorts. It was still one narrative too many. 

I also think Picoult spent too much time in the present with Josef and Sage at the beginning of the book. I think it would have been more impacting to spend time with them after we’d heard Minka’s story of survival. Then I think it could have been really interesting to read Sage grapple with her family history, and her own spirituality. She often remarks that she’s Jewish, but does not practice Judaism. But since Josef’s confession, and her asking questions of Minka, Sage starts to understand why her father always thought it was important that his children retain their religion; 


To me, it seemed they were following an abridged version of Judaism, so who were they to tell me tell me how and what to believe? I said this to me parents when I was lobbying to not have a bat mitzvah. My father got very quiet. The reason it’s important to believe in something, he said, is because you can

I also wish we’d spent more time with Josef at the end, rather than the beginning. I can see that Picoult wanted to lull Sage, and readers, into a false sense of him – as this sweet, old man – but we’re not surprised to discover his Nazi past, because it’s there in the blurb. We know what’s coming, and the drawn-out curveball of his confession is missing much punch. It would have actually been better if Picoult had kept the majority of present-day in the latter half of the story, rather than the beginning. I think it could have been much more hard-hitting to have to read Sage grapple with her ‘friendship’ with Josef if it had come after readers know of Minka’s awful Auschwitz story. 

I know that Picoult changed her US publishers last year – and ‘The Storyteller’ is her first book under a new imprint. Undoubtedly Picoult wants to push away from her oft-inappropriate ‘chick-lit’ label and accusations of formulaic writing. I won’t say that ‘The Storyteller’ is the best book to address the Holocaust or survivor stories. I actually think books by Morris Gleitzman, Suzy Zail and Ruta Sepetys (all released in the last couple of years) have been better. But Picoult does well to prod at current questions of guilt, forgiveness and accountability (as proven by the recent reopening of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre case). And ‘The Storyteller’ is even more hard-hitting for the many wars raging now – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. . .  what Picoult does is remind us that history keeps repeating itself, and the hunt for culprits of WWII is still as relevant as those wars being fought right now, when authorities will eventually turn an eye to prosecuting those who acted outside of the Geneva convention and basic humanity. 

‘The Storyteller’ is also the best Picoult book of recent years – and the first one I've managed to read through (actually, I read it in 2 days!) and it feels closer to her better, old self. 

4/5 

2 comments:

  1. I've previously not had a good experience with Jodi Picoult. The one book that I attempted was SO bad that I could not finish it. Reading a few other blurbs meant that I didn't want to try any more either. So depressing! But I received a copy of this one for review and the blurb for it actually had me really interested! So I convinced myself that I'd been unfairly harsh on Picoult, writing her off on one DNF when she obviously has a huge amount of books published, and that I would give this one a go.

    I totally loved it. It was fascinating. I love the way in which Picoult presented so many different sides - the reason so many Germans became Nazis, what it was like to work/serve/run the camps, what it was like to be a 90ish year old former Nazi and the weirdness of bringing an old man to justice for atrocities committed 50 years ago. Obviously you want to see war criminals tried but at the same time, Sage had developed a friendship with someone. I thought it was a great book, really engrossing and I was having little debates and arguments with myself on ethics all throughout.

    I think I finally get what Picoult can be now!

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    Replies
    1. Oh - I know exactly what you mean.

      After I discovered Picoult a few years ago, I ripped through her backlist and read 16 of her books in a couple of months - I was *that* obsessed.

      Then I started slacking off after a few of her more recent books became bumpy for me - I lost interest halfway through. Until 'The Storyteller'. This is definitely her best book in a long time!

      But, if I can recommend my favourite Jodi Picoult books to you?
      - 'My Sister's Keeper'
      - 'The Pact' (this one has a real YA-vibe)
      - 'Plain Truth'
      - 'Perfect Match'

      And all of the above require tissues :)

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