A few months ago, I was at a talk at the Guernsey Literary Festival about ‘how to make your book club better’ (although my book club’s pretty awesome already, obviously). The organisers had brought along a selection of recommended book club reads and as I was browsing afterwards, one of them pointed out The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult and told me, ‘That’s a great book, so different from her others.’
This was quite a recommendation, as far as I was concerned. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read and really enjoyed many of Jodi Picoult’s books – in fact I had a quick look at my bookshelves the other day and was surprised at how many I’ve got (and that doesn’t even include the ones on my Kindle or the two that mysteriously vanished when I moved house several years ago and have never been seen again). But even the biggest Jodi Picoult fan has to admit that there’s a formula to most of her books: Catastrophic Event leads to Moral Dilemma, followed by Court Case (featuring a lawyer with issues), and concluding with a Dramatic Twist Ending, which usually makes the courtroom explode.
A couple of weeks ago, I finally started reading The Storyteller. And to begin with, I thought I’d been tricked by that enthusiastic lady in Guernsey. No idea why she’d do that, but people can be weird.
The main character, Sage, is in grief counselling after losing her mother (Catastrophic Event), and works alone at night as a baker to avoid being around people. Until she meets Josef Weber, a little old man and much-loved member of their small town community, with whom she forms an unexpected friendship. And then he goes and ruins it by asking her to help him die. Oh, and also to forgive him, on behalf of all Jewish people, for his actions when he was a Nazi SS guard. So Sage is forced to choose between doing what he asks and going to the authorities (Moral Dilemma). Enter the lawyer (with issues)…
But around about this point, the story and style both change, and for the first time, I forgot I was reading a Jodi Picoult novel. Because it turns out the Storyteller isn’t really Sage at all, but her grandmother, Minka, a Polish Jew who just happened to live through the Holocaust. What follows is a really quite harrowing account of her experiences both while still ‘free’ and after arriving at Auschwitz. Of course it’s still a novel, and I’ve no doubt there are elements that have been glamorised and adapted to fit the story. There are certainly a few too many massive coincidences in there for it to be totally believable. But it does make you stop and think – not only about the victims of the Holocaust, but about those responsible for it. What made the Nazis, most of whom started out as good, normal people, turn into monsters? And is it ever possible to redeem yourself when you’ve committed such terrible acts?
Although the reasons and motivations of the German soldiers are touched on in the novel, I didn’t feel they were ever really explained, particularly in the case of the guard who as a youth had no interest in joining the Nazis, and is clearly tormented by guilt during his employment at Auschwitz. But does that guilt make him a better person than the guard who just gets on with it, and doesn’t see anything wrong in his actions? These are questions that are posed but never fully answered in the novel, allowing the reader to make up their own mind. Maybe some things just can’t be explained.
Unfortunately, once we finished Minka’s story, it was back to Sage and the lawyer, and the Dramatic Twist Ending, which unfortunately I saw coming a mile off. No exploding courtroom this time, though.
So it turns out the lady in Guernsey was right, and not messing with me – The Storyteller is very different from Jodi Picoult’s other novels, and it’s definitely a good read, although not always an easy one. If, like me, you find Sage a bit annoying, hang in there, because it gets better. I could happily (well, not happily, but you know what I mean) have read Minka’s story on its own and felt I’d got my money’s worth, although I did understand why the surrounding chapters were there.
I may still wait a while before reading another one of her books, though.
Have you read The Storyteller? What did you think?