Jodi Picoult, in her 19 previous provocative, plot-driven novels, has tackled a broad spectrum of timely social issues—from child abuse and capital punishment to organ donation and Asperger’s syndrome.
In The Storyteller, her latest, she weaves together two parallel stories from the darkest hours of the Holocaust. The link between these two stories is Sage Singer, a young, non-practicing Jewish woman in a small New Hampshire town. Sage is a loner—her father died suddenly when she was 19, her mother succumbed to cancer three years later, and she sustained significant facial scarring in an auto accident. Single, and a talented baker, she works the night shift at a local boutique bakery.
Sage’s grandmother, Minka, lives at an assisted living facility nearby. Though they are close, Minka has never shared the story of her childhood in Poland—even when Sage asked about the numbers tattooed on her grandmother’s forearm.
Sage attends a weekly grief support group, and she bonds with the newest member, Josef Weber, a 90-year-old widower. Josef is beloved in town as a teacher, coach and volunteer. But one day he unexpectedly confesses that he was an SS officer at Auschwitz, and that he now wants to die—and would like Sage to help him do so. Sage is stunned, but after a long discussion of his involvement in the Hitler Youth movement, and subsequent advancement to the SS, she begins to believe him. At the same time, she finally convinces Minka that it is time to tell her story of her life in Poland, and the horrors she faced—first in the Ghetto, then in two concentration camps before being rescued from Auschwitz in 1945.
Picoult deftly juxtaposes these two stories, which unfold along parallel lines: that of the German boy, “raised with scruples,” who by some “toxic cocktail of cells and schooling” became a participant in mass genocide; and her own grandmother’s harrowing memories of family members dying from starvation, and her[Fri Mar 7 06:01:05 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. [Fri Mar 7 06:01:05 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. tenuous survival in the camps, where “death had become part of the landscape.” She explores, along with the reader, the perhaps unanswerable questions of who has the power to forgive—and are there some acts which are simply unforgiveable?
The Storyteller is another thought-provoking novel from Picoult. Sadly, it is also one that is still timely, as episodes of genocide still occur today, and are somehow still ignored.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
CRACE’S HAUNTING FABLE
Jim Crace’s starkly beautiful new novel, Harvest, takes place in a small, tradition-bound village in an era that feels medieval. The planting and harvesting of barley has always been central to the community’s existence. No one can remember a time when things were different. But village life is forever altered when three strangers appear and a fire breaks out on the property of Master Kent, whose family owns the land the villagers farm. These chilling events are recounted by a man named Walter Thirsk, who came to the village 12 years ago and knows how it feels to be a stranger there. Thirsk is an articulate and perceptive narrator, and his plainspoken account of the fear and upheaval that sweep through the community after the fire is unforgettable. Crace’s book is parable-like in its demonstration of what can happen when a people too-long isolated are overcome by suspicion and distrust. It’s no surprise that this deeply affecting novel was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
TRAPPED BY THE PAST
Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller is a complex, moving novel about two Holocaust survivors and the ways in which their stories change one woman’s life. Sage Singer, a 25-year-old bakery employee in Westerbrook, New Hampshire, is coming to grips with the death of her mother. At her grief-counseling group, she befriends 95-year-old widower Josef Weber. As they grow closer, Josef asks Sage to help him die. Confessing that he was a Nazi during the Holocaust, Josef shares the unsettling story of his past with Sage. Overwhelmed and confused, Sage contacts the authorities about him. When Leo Stein, a lawyer and Nazi hunter, arrives to investigate Josef, the process leads him to Sage’s grandmother, Minka, a Jew who was persecuted during the war and whose past is intertwined with Josef’s. Picoult writes with compassion and sensitivity about the Holocaust and questions of faith, and she demonstrates extraordinary insight into the grieving process. This is a memorable story that showcases her many gifts as a novelist.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
In her much-praised debut novel, The House Girl, Tara Conklin tells the stories of two very different women—one a contemporary New York City lawyer, the other a 19th-century slave—and the remarkable connection they share. Lina Sparrow is involved in a class-action suit that will benefit the descendants of American slaves when she learns about Josephine Bell. A Virginia house servant who may have executed the acclaimed paintings long attributed to her white mistress, Josephine captures Lina’s imagination. Lina hopes to locate a relative of Josephine’s to enlist in the lawsuit. As she researches Josephine’s life, she begins to wonder about her own past, especially the strange death of her mother two decades ago. The mysteries soon multiply for Lina, and what she learns changes her life forever. Conklin, who worked as a litigator before devoting herself to writing, develops the parallel stories of her two heroines with the skill of a seasoned novelist. Her understanding of history and instinct for detail make The House Girl a remarkably assured debut.
Picoult (Change of Heart) reconfigures themes from her other bestsellers for her uneven new morality tale. Twenty-five-year-old reclusive baker Sage Singer befriends the elderly Josef Weber, who shares something shocking from his past and asks her to help him die, a request that pins Sage between morality and retribution. Sage, a Jew who now considers herself an atheist, begins to think more deeply about faith. Picoult examines the links between family identity, religion, humanity, and how it all figures in difficult decisions. The three-parter is narrated by several characters, including Sage's grandmother Minka, who survived the Holocaust. Snippets of a novel Minka wrote focus on a bloodthirsty beast, a metaphor for life in a death camp. Picoult's formulaic approach to Minka's accounts of the Holocaust is a cheap shot, but the author appreciates Sage's moral bind. Nearly half of the book is devoted to a verbose, sad recounting of Minka's time during the war, but the real conflict lies within Sage. That conflict, and the complexity of a character who discovers herself through the trials of Josef and Minka, is the book's saving grace. Agent: Laura Gross, the Laura Gross Literary Agency. (Mar.)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC