Author: Jodi Picoult
Harlequin Mira RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Publisher Allen & Unwin describes The Storyteller as Jodi Picoult’s “most thought provoking yet”. Fans of Picoult know to expect issues-based novels, ones which delve into an issue and force the reader (along with the characters) to acknowledge opposing viewpoints. They’re all about everyday people facing tough, moral, ethical and philosophical situations that make readers question what they would do – those who start reading thinking, “I know what I’d do” are often left wondering if indeed, that is what they would do. I’ve read all of Picoult’s books and all have left me thinking, so is it a stretch to describe The Storyteller as the “most” thought provoking? Not for me.
Twenty-something Sage Singer works as a baker and keeps to herself. Damaged by her past, Sage is able to hide behind solitary night work and focus her energy on the bread she bakes. When she meets Josef, a 90-plus man, at a grief group, she has no idea what their unlikely friendship will stir up. First, there’s the request. Josef wants Sage to kill him. He wants his life over, he tells her. She refuses, shocked and disturbed by the request, and asks why he wants to die. Mercy killing, euthanasia, right to die – is that where this story is going? No. The second dilemma revolves around Josef’s reasons for wanting to die. As he confesses his role as a Nazi official in Poland and Germany during the Holocaust, Sage feels revulsion and horror for the grandfatherly man. Could it be possible that this man, so well-respected in the community, a former teacher and Little League coach, is a Nazi? Someone who, directly or indirectly, was responsible for the atrocities committed against six million people? Possibly against her own family? Then the reader comes to the third and toughest dilemma: Josef wants Sage to forgive him for the things he did back then.
Then I think of my grandmother and I feel like I’m going to be sick.
I think of my grandmother, who – like Josef – refused to speak of this for so long. Was it because she thought that if she didn’t talk about it, she wouldn’t have to relive it. Or was it because even a single word of memory was like opening a Pandora’s box, and might let evil seep like poison into the world again.
Sage’s grandmother Minka is a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Her parents, sister and best friend Darija – and many others she knew – were not so fortunate. She witnessed countless horrors – hangings, cold-blooded murders, torture, starvation, concentration camps and the slow devastation of the human spirit all around her. As she recalls that period of her life (at Sage’s request), she says poignantly: “It was as if death had become part of the landscape.” Her story is as harrowing for the reader as it would be for Sage, the listener, and Minka, the storyteller. As an investigation into Josef takes place behind the scenes, Sage tries to understand how or if her grandmother was able to forgive the Germans once she had regained her freedom. Will this help her sort out what she feels about Josef, knowing what she knows? Is forgiveness Sage’s to offer? And even if it was, can she?
I read The Storyteller over several days, with breaks in between to allow my mind to absorb the story. I needed that time because the story provoked so many questions. Some were the ones Picoult wanted readers to consider: Can war criminals ever redeem themselves? Do they deserve redemption or forgiveness? Are there times when killing someone is justified? But for me, the questions had a more personal angle. You see, my grandparents were German. They were not Jewish, but Lutheran. They lived in Germany during World War II and relocated to Australia in the 1950’s, leaving behind my extended family. One of my grandfathers was a prisoner of war in England for a time. One of my grandmothers nursed the injured. I know little more because those times were not spoken of after the war and so I found myself asking, what did they want to forget? What did they see? What did they believe? How would they answer the questions Picoult posits? The Storyteller awoke all these questions in me and suddenly I wanted answers. It was a similar awakening to the one Sage has when she realises that her grandmother (or late father) never talks about the past. What was already a gutting read brought me to tears, wishing it wasn’t too late to ask … and knowing that it was.
As a title, The Storyteller is apt. Who is the storyteller, apart from Picoult herself? Is history the storyteller? Or are the storytellers those who fill in the gaps after the facts? Picoult uses her well-honed multi-viewpoint formula in The Storyteller; in this case, it goes beyond the formula. It was a sensitive choice because to begin to answer her questions, you need the story from all sides. It’s not about making excuses for reprehensible actions – just allowing the characters to have their say. There’s a story around Josef that he has happily accepted in order to put the past aside – the nice old man, a pillar of the community and so on. But the “real” story, his story, eats at him – he is compelled to tell someone in order to feel some semblance of peace, even if that peace is death. Minka is a reluctant storyteller late in life – like Josef, she’s put the past behind; retelling it to Sage means reliving. Yet, storytelling was her coping mechanism when she was young and caught up in events beyond her control. She wrote a gothic-style tale, a dark allegory of vampires and monsters that parallels life as she knows it; it’s as haunting to the reader as it is to the characters who read it.
Through expert, sensitive writing, Picoult transported me to a place of darkness that was both compelling and repelling. The Storyteller is a powerful piece of writing that is heartbreaking, confounding, confusing and horrifying all at once. The Pandora’s box reference (quoted earlier) is apt – a story like this opens the lid on a maelstrom of thoughts, sucking you in until the very end. And of course, there’s the sucker punch – the twist you don’t see coming which uproots all your thinking once again. Jodi, you’ve outdone yourself. How you’ll top this, I don’t know. And Allen & Unwin, describing this as the most thought provoking Picoult book was spot on. At least, for this reader. And I’m just glad, no blessed, that I have never experienced the apathy that comes with war and death being “part of the landscape”.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: …”a single roll that was as unique as it was delicious: a twist like a princess’s crown, dough mixed with sweet cinnamon and the richest chocolate.”