Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Storyteller

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult.

I move around the kitchen, weaving from cabinet to shelf to pantry. I chop and mix bittersweet chocolate and ground cinnamon; I add a hint of vanilla. I create a small cavern as deep as my thumb in the knot of dough, and twist its limbs into an ornate crown. I let it proof, and in the meantime, instead of hiding in the back room, I go into the cafe and talk with Rocco. I work the cash register. I chat with customers about the heat and the Red Sox, about how pretty Westerbrook is in the summer, not once trying to cover my face with my bangs. And I marvel at how all these people can go about their lives as if they are not sitting on a powder keg; as if they don't know that when you pull back the curtain of an ordinary life, there might be something terrible hidden behind it.

Holocaust, World War II, Germany
I am a huge fan of Jodi Picoult's books - indeed, I've certainly reviewed enough of them - and there are a few reasons why her stories are so good. She always does a ton of research, and this one was no exception; the topic is a sensitive one, and the way the novel is set up is interesting as well. Although most of her books are told from the points of view of alternating narrators, depending on the chapter, The Storyteller, while following this pattern, starts off focusing on one character's back story  and then delves into one of her family members' stories and stays there for quite a while, which is a bit of an anomaly from Picoult's past novels.

Sage has two sisters she doesn't talk to - the appropriately named Pepper and Saffron - and both of her parents have passed away. Her grandmother, Minka, is the only family she speaks to on a regular basis. She's involved with Adam, a married man, and she's extremely self-conscious about a scar she has that runs down her face, which she received in a car accident. Sage attends a support group for those who are grieving their losses, and it's there that she meets Josef Weber, a 95-year-old man who is prominent in their community; he used to teach German at the high school. If you ask anyone, they would tell you Josef is a model citizen; until, that is, he confides in Sage that he used to be an S.S. officer at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

The Storyteller starts off telling us a story, although we don't know it at the time; it ends up being a fictional story that Sage's grandmother, Minka, made up, although it mirrors the characters' actual lives as well. The first 1/4 of the story is told by Sage, for the most part, and then Minka takes over for the next half. This was an unusual choice by Picoult, but when you read this novel you will see why she did it: Minka's story is all-consuming and needs more than a few chapters to pan out. Minka is a Holocaust survivor, and Sage and a Dept. of Justice employee, Leo Stein, want her to eventually be able to identify Josef Weber so that they can have him extradited back to Germany, and maybe even be brought to justice one day.

I am Jewish, and although none of my family was in the Holocaust, the subject has always struck close to home for me. Picoult is a masterful writer and really makes you feel like you are at Auschwitz, experiencing what Minka experienced, and how she ended up being the only one in her family to make it out of Germany alive.

There were a few predictable parts, mostly with Sage and Leo, the man she meets who works to send Holocaust war criminals to jail, but Sage's story was interesting as well, and added much to the story - she had never heard her grandmother talk about the Holocaust, even though she knew she was a survivor, and she was shocked when she heard Minka's entire story from start to finish.

4.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this novel to review. The opinions expressed here, however, are my own.

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