Jodi Picoult, the award-winning, Britain’s biggest –selling female author, who also tops New York Times best seller list have tackled a major theme in her book, the Storyteller. The story is woven around the Holocaust and its atrocities; religion, moral ethics, trauma and most importantly, forgiveness, all fused into one book. Jodi Picoult has a knack for writing about challenging yet paramount issues in the contemporary world; from child abuse, suicide pacts and murder; but how well did she succeed in this intense topic? As it turns out, very well indeed.
The story focuses on a young lady by the name Sage Singer, who is struggling psychologically as a result of a terrible accident that cost a life. Battling out her loneliness and guilt, she tries to avoid all contact with the outside world by working as a baker through the night preparing the day’s breads and pastries. Meanwhile, Sage finds a friend in an elderly man in her grief support group, by the name Josef Weber. Despite their differences, they become good companions.
Everything falls apart when Josef confesses his ultimate, yet shameful secret and asks Sage for a peculiar favour. He confides in her that he worked as a SS Officer during the World War II in the Auschwitz Concentration camp, Poland; a Nazi killing machine, contrary to the society’s belief of him – a respectable retired school teacher. He is suffering from his conscience and he decides to die, but he wants Sage’s help to do. Naturally, Sage is horrified as she will have to face moral and legal repercussions if she decided to go ahead with it. She struggles to make the correct decision and starts to wonder whether it is right of her to release him from his heinous crimes or would that bring herself down to his level by doing so? Sage is confused but decides to be inquisitive. But…
“When does a moral choice become a moral imperative? And where does one draw the line between punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy?”
During the second part of the story, the reader is given an insight into Minka’s story – a survivor of Auschwitz who also happens to be Sage’s grandmother. Readers are given the opportunity to gain firsthand experience of the concentration camps through Minka’s point of view, as the story operates in dual timelines, the reader is transported to the ruthless times of 1940s and brought back to the divine comforts of the modern day America. The Holocaust in Minka’s eyes is immensely horrifying as Nazi cruelty is an everyday thing in her life. The author has managed to integrate all the important accounts, of that time through her personal story.
This book is not an easy read, because the tale is deeply strenuous as it is about a young Jewish girl under the brutal Nazi regime. The Holocaust was terrifying, but reading it through a first person perspective is an emotionally draining, yet worthy experience at the same time.
Writing about a sensitive topic like this is challenging considering the breadth of the damage done. Jodi has done her part; she has undergone extensive research to stay true to history in order to pay tribute to the countless lives that was destroyed during the World War II. She gracefully facilitates the transition between present life Sage’s struggles with her own emotional turmoil and what Josef has requested her to do, and importantly, Minka’s devastating tale.
The author has made it her objective to paint an accurate picture of what really happened during the Holocaust, involving certain events and people. Moreover, she tries to give the reader both sides that are affected: Germans and the Jews. For instance, Germans are also presented equally as anyone, without assuming the worst. Rightly so, not all of the Jewish characters are perfect either. The author strives to show that everyone is human with their own share of flaws, irrespective of the race.
“Not all Jews were victims and not all Germans were murderers.”
Another theme that is greatly focused is, forgiveness. In Sage’s perspective, she yearns for forgiveness for the life she has lost. Josef on the other hand, is guilty of having so much blood in his hands. Both the characters are doing what they think is the best to overcome their misery.
“Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, ‘You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me.’ It’s saying, ‘You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.”
Moreover, the characters that are employed are insightful and deep in nature. They are made quite realistic with their own set of flaws. In the beginning however, Sage lacks the necessary character development and is seen as a bland character, compared to her grandmother, who shows constant strength and perseverance but, as Sage puts what she learnt from her grandmother into perspective and changes her ways, her character greatly improves. Josef, on the other hand is an enigma. He is seen as a very complex character, who has a lot to offer. In conclusion, Jodi Picoult has done justice to her characters; they are perfectly flawed, strong and shows great endurance. The audience will definitely remember these remarkable characters days, months and years later.
Overall, this is a well-written book dealing with grief, guilt and forgiveness in many levels and takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster. Jodi Picoult’s unique writing style, which uses a varied narration techniques is the highlight of the novel. During Minka’s narration, this is clearly evident; the emotive language and the reader is taken on a journey of the horrendous events that happened. This is not an ordinary book about Holocaust; it is a confronting and a moving story, a true privilege to honor those whose lives were taken a little too early. Further, the concept that a former Nazi officer is seeking out a young Jewish woman for assisted suicide and forgiveness is truly ironic; it makes us wonder about the consequences of racial prejudice and social psychology of the Nazis at the time. Though the ending is unusual, it neatly ties all the ends and leaves the audience with a deep question: Can someone be truly good or truly evil, or is everyone just a mix? Yes, something to think about.