Sunday 22 July 2018

The Storyteller // book review

I am truly and completely fascinated by any and all aspects of World War Two – since a young age I’ve been interested in knowing as much as I can about it, and my own creative writing over the years has often been focused on different aspects of the Nazi regime. When my mum was going through her bookshelves and handed me a copy of The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, the blurb gave little away; of course, I knew it was going to be good, as Jodi’s novels always are, but there was nothing to suggest at first that this was a story centred around something that I myself have written so many stories about. But, as it turned out, it was. And it was incredible.

The book centres around Sage, a baker with a facial scar that she does her very best to hide from the world. She is grieving for the loss of her mother, and as readers we are completely drawn into this grief; in fact, we are completely drawn in by every emotion Sage feels. The good, the bad and the ugly is amplified by how skilfully Jodi Picoult describes it and, like many of her characters, Sage is relatable despite the fact that her life, and what happens to her throughout the course of the story, is fairly out of the ordinary. As with all of Jodi’s novels, there’s A Big Theme running throughout: in the case of The Storyteller, that theme is forgiveness. Sage, our lonely baker who works at night so she doesn’t have to see anybody, who is in love with a married man because she thinks he is the only man who could ever love her, who is so deeply and painfully grieving for the happy family she wishes she had, crosses paths with an old man called Josef Weber – and she has to make the ultimate decision in forgiveness and morality.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two, and Jodi portrays the vast difference between them with such flair that it makes you wonder how – or why - they’re getting along. But they are, and as they spend more time together we get to know Josef too, and it’s sort of heart-warming to know that our protagonist has a proper friend. I like this a lot about the way Jodi Picoult writes: she always has you rooting for somebody, and in this case I genuinely wanted things to go well for Sage in her job, her friendships, her healing. But of course life (and therefore our reflections of it in fiction) isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and puppies – and Josef Weber drops a bombshell. This is a complete spoiler, but you knew that before you read this review so don’t blame me: Josef Weber, the quiet unassuming old man that Sage has been spending time with, is an actual flipping Nazi. At least, he says he is, and Sage believes him. The governmental Nazi hunters, however, aren’t so sure.

the storyteller by jodi picoult

And so, Jodi Picoult takes us on two journeys simultaneously: a present-day story, detailing Sage’s moral dilemma at having discovered that her new-found friend served as an SS officer in the war that traumatised her own grandmother alongside a step back in time as first Josef, and then Sage’s grandmother Minka, delve into their memories and lay out two very different perspectives of life during World War Two. Minka walks us through the ghettos, and Auschwitz, and her eventual escape, and Jodi illustrates the tragedies of Minka’s crumbling life as if she was really there; the attention to detail, the anecdotal style, it’s just incredible. (I know, I’m gushing, but I can’t help it.) And again, with Josef’s stories, they’re so peppered with fact and emotion and utter utter horror – they feel almost autobiographical, as do the parts written from Minka’s point of view, and as a WW2 I love that. I love feeling as though I’m reading something written by someone who was there, despite what side of the coin they were on.

These stories are told to Sage, and so we get her reaction to reconcile with our own – and her life keeps on going, too, while the truth is unfolding about her friend and her grandmother. She keeps baking, and grieving, and loving; her day to day interactions still occur, only now she’s involved in trying to prove that Josef Weber is who he’s told her he is, so that maybe a tiny bit of justice can be done. And in the end, maybe, it is. But really that doesn’t matter, because it still happened – the stories that Jodi Picoult has written about Josef and Minka’s lives are real. Maybe the names and the faces and the small details are different but this happened. And reading about it, reading about the systematic abuse in the concentration camps and the indoctrination of German children to rally against anybody who wasn’t just like them, reading about the riots and the hunger and the filth, is harrowing. But, I think, anyway, that keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive is so important – and Jodi has done an incredible job of doing so in The Storyteller, weaving these stories into a modern setting and all the while, making us question how much we can forgive.

If you’re into history, this book is a must-read. I loved it from start to finish and as difficult as it was at times, it was ultimately worth it. If you’ve read it, let me know what you thought!

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