Enthralling (4.5 stars)
Published by Hodder & Stoughton- March 26th 2013
Source- personal copy
Hardback edition- 448 pages
A new Jodi Picoult book being released is always a cause for major celebration for me. I absolutely adore her novels and she is one of the very few authors whose work I will purchase in hardback editions, simply so I have a nice uniform set standing on my bookshelves- despite the space they take up. I also have to get them in hardback as I simply cannot hold out waiting months for the paperback edition. One of my favourite author experiences involved Jodi signing my copy of Sing You Home at a local bookshop a few years ago. I was a bit of a quivering fan girl there, I have to admit. She wore a tiara and the whole thing was a bit surreal.
Though I love all of Picoult’s novels, my favourite Picoult book is Nineteen Minutes; I am yet to read one that has topped that, though each of her books always has me enthralled for very different reasons and is a wholly memorable journey. The Storyteller was no exception- it had me gripped with its perfect blend of drama, history and moral dilemma. Surprisingly absent from the book was Picoult’s usual courtroom scenario, something she is well-known for writing in her novels, but I must admit that I didn’t miss it here as the story was so beautifully written.
This is a thought-provoking tale of secrets and forgiveness, set against the backdrop of both the Holocaust and the present day. Despite it being set amidst such a pivotal time in history, the situation isn’t all black and white; just when you think you can comprehend what is happening, another twist is thrown into the plot-line to make you sit up and take notice- but most importantly of all: remember. This book could have read like just another well-researched account of the Holocaust, but Picoult has crafted believable characters, each with their own remarkably vivid presence, to re-live those events.
In the present day, twenty-something Sage Singer is deeply suffering after the sudden loss of her mother, when she encounters an old man at her Grief Group. Josef Webber certainly seems like everyone’s favourite grandfather and is a pillar of the local community, so Sage is confused when he asks her for a favour: he wants her to help him die. He then divulges his deepest secret: he deserves to die… because he was a Nazi SS guard. Compounded with this fact is the notion that Sage’s own grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor. Can Sage go through with such a request? And if so, would it be murder…. or justice?
Ack. I don’t know how Picoult manages to take such tricky, impossible themes and weave them into such mesmerising works of fiction. At times sickening, at times triumphant, this is a book I am so glad that I have read and it did manage to deal with a harrowing subject in a very respectful manner. Amidst the graphic situations and frightening circumstances depicted it most importantly poses some interesting questions: Can you ever forgive someone a truly horrendous crime? Can you forgive someone if you are not even the person which has been wronged?
The writing is beautiful as always, wrapping together the notably different viewpoints spectacularly throughout. I have never known another author to successfully pull the reader into the characters heads as Picoult does (Fan-girl gushing again there. Sorry).
This story had some very interesting, well-developed characters, my favourite of whom was Minka. She is given such a powerful voice and her will to survive is just remarkable. Whilst this novel provided a horrifically graphic (but necessary) insight into conditions in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, it also remains a testament to the strength and determination of human spirit, which is no better emphasised than by the fictional Minka. To me at least, she felt utterly real. Josef, I cannot really comment on for fear of inadvertently giving away any plot spoilers, but needless to say that his story was just as compelling as Minka’s and he is a thoroughly memorable individual.
Whilst I found Sage to be well-drawn, she wasn’t particularly likeable and I didn’t always agree with her actions. Likewise, with Leo, who assists her in her search for the truth about Josef Webber and seemed to be in there merely as a convenient romantic interest and was quite weakly written. Of the two narratives, I by far found the past day one to be the most remarkable, which is admittedly a strange thing to say on a book about the Holocaust.
It would have been perhaps simpler for Picoult to take the easy way out and paint all Germans as evil given the terrible circumstances suffered by the Jewish people, but thankfully she doesn’t take that route. Picoult is careful to portray that despite the horrors inflicted, there are some German people sympathetic to the cause of the Jewish people during WWII and she takes great pains to illustrate these people who have a conscience within the storyline. Amidst such atrocities, those who sympathise with the Jews’ plight are a welcome ray of hope. As a counter-balance, not all of the Jewish characters she has created are by any means perfect, Sage being the predominant example.
I also really loved the way that Picoult juxtaposed the fable written by Sage’s grandmother, Minka, against both the present and past storylines. What starts in almost a fairytale-like fashion descends into something more horrifying and dark as the main plot itself proceeds, symbolic of Minka’s own experiences. I think if I went back and re-read this book I would take even more away from that particular aspect of the story, given that I now know how the plot concludes.
I haven’t given this book the full five stars as I found the ending perhaps a little bit more abrupt than I had anticipated, without the final sense of closure that I had expected. Without giving away any spoilers, there was also a plot twist that I saw coming, which whilst cleverly done was admittedly a bit predictable. I didn’t feel as a reader that I had been left ‘hanging’ by any stretch of the imagination; I just wanted something… more.
Whether you are a Picoult fan or just looking for a well-written piece of contemporary fiction that poses some difficult questions I cannot recommend this book enough. It would also make an excellent book club read.