Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: "The Storyteller" by Jodi Picoult

The nocturnal hours of her profession suit baker Sage Singer. In darkness and isolation, she nurses her pain over her mother's death, killed in the same car accident which disfigured Sage's face.

In her grief support group, Sage bonds with elderly widower Josef Weber. But her new friend discloses a terrible secret: he was a member of the SS, overseeing a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Josef believes Sage's Jewish ancestry grants her the authority to forgive him--and the right to assist in his suicide plan.

Sage is no stranger to guilt and despair, but Josef's confession and its accompanying plea horrify her. She is convinced to endure the truth by Nazi hunter Leo Stein; by her own grandmother, a survivor of the camps; and by her lingering compassion for Josef. For the sake of the Holocaust's victims, she must see Josef's story to its end--no matter what skeletons they unearth along the way.

  3.5 out of 5 stars

I must tag this one as both historical and contemporary fiction. While the plot of Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller revolves around the dark years of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the action of the story takes place in the present, following the chain of consequences down family trees and through the years to ordinary Sage the baker.

This split narrative sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Each layer of the story is separately engaging--Sage wrestling with her decision to euthanize a self-confessed Nazi; Josef's aforementioned confession; the story of Sage's grandmother, Minka, a victim of the Holocaust; and the fictional vampire story written by Minka to amuse her fellow prisoners.

The problem with this division of the narrative is that the reader loses track of the physical action taking place in the present, i.e. the actual plot of The Storyteller.

The middle third of the book is Minka's story, presented without interruption--a solid 150 pages. I read it in a single sitting, almost without drawing a breath. But by the end of it, I had forgotten heroine Sage entirely. Her emotional arc is chopped apart in such a way as to render it illegible.

This is not to say that Sage's arc would be clear if not for that massive, book-rending story-within-a-story. While Picoult sets the stage well for her heroine's troubled life and troubled future, Sage loses cohesion as a character when Josef makes his initial confession. From that moment on, her reactions are nonsensical, her motivations unclear. She becomes a plot device, rather than a character. She, like Josef, now exists only to answer the philosophical question Picoult poses to them.

Four hundred and sixty pages are a long time to go without a character in whom I can invest.
"Do people ever tell you things you wish they wouldn't?"
"Most of the people I meet can't talk anymore. [...] But their relatives give mean earful. Usually they say what they should have said to their loved one before she died. I guess I'm the last stop, you know? The repository of regret." He smiles. "What brought this on?" he asks.

"I had a conversation with someone today that really rattled me. I'm not sure what I should do about it."

"Maybe he doesn't want you to do anything. Maybe he just needed you to listen."

But it isn't that simple. The confessions he hears from the relatives of the deceased are should-haves and wish-I'ds, not I-did. Once you are given a grenade with the pin pulled out, you have to act. You have to pass it off to someone who knows how to disable it, or press it back into the hands of the person who's relinquished it. Because if you don't, you're bound to explode.
I admire Picoult's portrayal of her characters' expertise in their respective fields--whether that is Sage expounding upon the baking process and mass-producing artisanal loaves, or an undertaker  demonstrating the behind-the-scenes work of preparing a body for viewing. The characters have a believable passion for their craft, grounded in lovingly detailed research by their author.

Not all of the characters are as lovingly handled. Leo, the Nazi hunter and Song's love interest, brings little to the story besides a mouthpiece for the Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions, and a vaguely gross disdain for women who aren't as sensitive-yet-wounded as Sage.

The 'twist' of the book is heavily foreshadowed, but even readers who guess the secret before it is revealed should find it fitting. I must tip my hat to Picoult for voicing why we must continue to prosecute war criminals like Nazis, even though half a century has passed: because war crimes are still committed, and genocides are still being carried out across the globe.
If we're not, what message is America sending to people who commit genocide? That they can get away with it, if enough time passes? They can hide inside our borders without even a slap on the wrist? We routinely deport hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens every year whose sole offense is that they overstayed a visa or came without the right paperwork--but people who were involved in crimes against humanity get to stay? And die peacefully here? And be buried on American soil?
Sadly, I cannot count the ending as another point in the book's favor. Unlike in Gone Girl, where the last three pages or so redeem much of the book for me, the final pages of The Storyteller rewind significant development on Sage's part and casts serious doubt onto what I believe Picoult intended to be a hopeful future. (For those who have read the book: I refer not to Sage's decision regarding Josef's plea, but to her answer to Leo's final query. The final page, instead of resolving the story, has Song take a major step back into mistrust and isolation. This does not serve the narrative in any way.)

As a side note: my friend Rebecca brought to my attention the distressing fact that the most popular books about the Holocaust are not about its primary victims, the Jewish people and other 'undesirables', but about good Gentiles: The Hiding Place, Schindler's List, The Book Thief, Number The Stars... The only Holocaust book I can think of off the top of my head which centers on the Jewish experience is Elie Wiesel's Night. In The Storyteller, Picoult makes it explicitly clear that Sage, the daughter of Jewish parents, does not identify as Jewish herself; similarly, Minka's story of suffering is actually a device to exonerate Josef Weber. This does not make The Storyteller a bad book any more so than it does for the rest. It is, however, a trend worth noting, and worth challenging.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  pass
Content Warning: character deaths, animal deaths, torture, sexual assault, genocide

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