All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult

StorytellerThe Storyteller
Jodi Picoult
Allen & Unwin
2013, 462p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher/The Reading Room

Sage Singer lives a very solitary life. Still grieving the loss of her mother some years ago, for which she blames herself and thinks others do too, she works nights in a bakery and sees very few people. She attends a grief support group and it is there that she finds herself striking up a friendship with Josef Weber, a 90+ year old man who has long been a stalwart of the town. He taught German at the high school for many years and coached baseball. He is much loved by many and Sage finds him easy to talk to when she isn’t usually comfortable around others. And then Josef asks Sage for a favour.

He wants her to help kill him.

This isn’t just the wish of an old, sick man. Josef is in strong and robust health for his age. But when  he tells Sage why he wants to die, she finds herself torn. Josef is a former Nazi, someone who was actively involved in the atrocities committed in the concentration camps. And Sage is the granddaughter of a survivor: her grandmother was incarcerated for years in a Polish Jewish camp and she was also sent to Auschwitz. As Josef begins to recount his atrocities, it begins to feel all a little too close to home for Sage and she struggles with finding someone who will listen to her and not dismiss her as a crackpot when she tries to tell them about Josef.

I’m not a Jodi Picoult fan. I’ve attempted to read precisely one of her books before and it was a fail. I couldn’t even finish it. Since then I’ve avoided them, even though I have always wanted to read My Sister’s Keeper. However I feel as though I wasn’t very fair to her and when I was offered a review copy of this book I decided that it would be my second chance to embrace Picoult.

Sage Singer is a damaged soul. She is facially scarred from a car accident and she uses this as an excuse to hide from humanity. As she admits, like a victim of an eating disorder, she knows that what she sees in the mirror isn’t reality. Because of her distorted perception of herself, she works nights in a bakery, pouring love and creativity into her breads. She’s also involved in a relationship with a married man, because she’s pathetically grateful to have someone that wants her. This is what she believes she deserves, not someone who will walk down the street proudly with her, claiming that she is his for all the world to see. Her self-esteem is dangerously low and it seems the only real pleasure she gets in life is from a combination of yeast, flour and water.

When Josef begins to confess his past to Sage, we get his story, beginning as a young man in a war-ravaged Germany where the whole country was devastated by the results of World War I and looking for someone who had the answers. I have to admit, I did find Josef’s story very interesting. Part of Hitler’s regime involved convincing people, normal ordinary people who were just going about their business to commit atrocities of the highest order. And Josef describes how these acts made him feel and what he did to cope with them. I don’t make excuses for Nazi’s, I don’t think anyone makes excuses for Nazi’s except those crackpots who like to claim that the Holocaust was just made up and it doesn’t matter because only 1 million Jews died, not 6 so it’s really all okay, but this book does raise an interesting point: are cogs in the wheel just doing what they had to in order to survive a terrible time? What were the alternatives for the SS during WWII? You either shot Jews or put them to the gas chambers or Hitler and his cohorts found a new and creative way to kill you. How do you punish someone 50, 60 years later for ideas and actions that weren’t their own? How do you make it stick? How do you find the evidence? How do you reconcile the image of the elderly gentleman with the brash youth brandishing a shotgun? Even though she’s horrified by what he did, Sage also sees Josef for who and what he is today. A 90+ year old man who has served as a virtual community saint for the past 50.

We are given Sage’s grandmother’s story as well, which is also reflective of the above question. Although she comes to regard most Germans as monsters, she also meets several during her time of incarceration who do what they can to help her, in tiny ways, that won’t draw suspicious eyes. She understands that not all monsters are born that way, some are created and some come about because they have no choice. Minka, Sage’s grandmother, suffers horribly during the war. Her story is probably very similar to many survivors out there and it honestly made me want to cry. There were so many small, heartbreaking moments that I don’t know how she came out of it when the war ended. I’ve read a few fictional accounts of WWII and even though it’s just a story, you know that all of this comes from somewhere that this actually happened to real people during this time.

I really found myself riveted by this story from start to finish. The characters were rich and well drawn, the story fascinating on so many levels and layers. There’s a huge amount of dimension to this book – it’s a story of someone coming into themselves, a little romance, a lot of tragedy and a bit of fairytale magic as well. Maybe I just chose the wrong Picoult book to start with or maybe I’m lucky that this one happens to tick an awful lot of boxes for me.


Book #54 of 2013

**Please note this review is based on an uncorrected proof copy. The finalised text may be different.