By Jodi Picoult
Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller tackles the heavy subject of the Holocaust and poses equally heavy questions concerning punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy.
The story opens with the reclusive Sage Singer a 25 year-old baker. Sage hides from the world due to a nasty scar on her face caused by a car accident that injured and killed her mother. Her only interactions with other people are at a grief counseling meeting and her affair with Adam, a married funeral director.
At the grief counseling sessions, Sage meets the elderly Josef Weber whose wife recently passed away. Josef begins to stop by the cafe where Sage works and over a brief period of time the two form a friendship. Sage welcomes Josef’s companionship until the day Josef asks her if she’ll help him commit suicide. He tells Sage that he can no longer live with the secret he’s been harboring and wants forgiveness. It appears the mild-mannered Josef was an SS officer who had been stationed at Auschwitz.
With the information in hand, Sage contacts prosecutor Leo Stein at the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. At first Leo is skeptical about Sage’s claim of Josef’s past, but the more information she gathers about Josef, Leo becomes interested in pursuing the case. However, he warns her that it might not lead to anything unless they can find a witness who can place him at the extermination camp.
Enter stage right, Minka, Sage’s grandmother. When approached to tell her story, Minka is hesitant at first yet warms to the idea and recounts her childhood in Łódź, Poland. It’s a time of innocence when she and her best friend Darija dream of one day moving to London–Minka’s ambition is to write novels, and Darija will work as her editor. But their goals come to a dead stop when the Nazis invade Poland. Soon the Jews of Łódź are imprisoned in a section of the city run by the controversial Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. Minka’s tale is long, and she recounts how from the Łódź ghetto she and her father are relocated to Auschwitz and in heartbreaking detail, and shares the terrible memories of the camp, the beatings, deaths, and the inhumanity of the period.
Picoult is known for her dedicated research and provides readers with memoirs within the novel. Josef’s story of his childhood in Germany, how he excelled in the Hitler Youth to eventually become an SS officer in the most notorious of camps. These narratives read like an encapsulated autobiographies. In addition to Minka’s memoir, Picoult adds the story of the upiór, (a Polish vampire) that the teenaged Minka wrote.
The problem with these two fictionalized oral histories as well as the upiór story, it slows the contemporary narrative of Sage’s predicament and her evolving relationship with Leo. Picoult will no doubt have two camps that either favor or become frustrated with the story. Readers with little knowledge of the Holocaust and the SS might find it educational (Picoult provides a bibliography for those who want to learn more. One excellent resource is the Holocaust narrative by Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews During the Second World War. For readers, who want the actual bible of the Holocaust, this reviewer recommends The Destruction of the European Jews by the late Raul Hilberg). But for the latter group, especially those who have read about the atrocities of World War II, The Storyteller simply takes too long to get to the point. Unfortunately, when it does, Picoult’s denouement is predictable and disappointing.
But, most importantly, are the questions about justice and forgiveness answered? Picoult leaves that to individual readers. The Storyteller will get tongues wagging, especially for those who are in the “Never Forget” corner, but her approach in telling this story—at least to this reader—seemed to lean too heavily on the personal narratives of Josef and Minka—an almost cut and paste approach taken from the endless oral histories that are accessible via the Internet—and less about Leo and Sage and their philosophical positions about punishment and mercy.