I've been a fan of Jodi Picoult's writing ever since I first read My Sister's Keeper back in 2005 (I think), but I have to admit that her most recent books haven't excited me in quite the same way and I was beginning to worry that her familiar format was running out of steam. However, her latest novel `The Storyteller' marks an exciting change of direction and I loved it.
Well perhaps `loved' is the wrong word to use given the subject matter, it's certainly a harrowing and shocking story at times. The first part of the novel centres on Sage Singer, a reclusive young woman who hides herself away from the world due to a disfiguring facial scar. Sage works nights in a bakery and, apart from minimal contact with her co-workers, her only other interaction with the outside world is through the grief counselling group she attends to help her come to terms with the death of her mother three years earlier. It's through this group that she meets Josef Weber, an elderly man of German extraction who inveigles his way into her life and chooses her as his confidant when he decides to unburden himself of a shocking secret which he has kept buried for 60 years.
Josef's revelation and the request he makes of her as a result cause Sage to examine her own conscience and look deep into her family history. What follows is the tale of one woman (her grandmother Minka) who was a survivor of the death camps at Auschwitz. The middle section of the book is devoted to Minka's story. I don't think it matters how many accounts of the holocaust one reads, fictional or real, the true horror of what went on is impossible to comprehend. Picoult certainly doesn't pull any punches which makes for difficult reading at times, but Minka's determination to survive make it utterly compelling.
Woven into the storyline are excerpts from a dark fairy tale written by Minka, which comes to have a central role in her survival. If I'd known in advance that it involved teen vampires I'd probably have run a mile, but trust me, somehow it works!
It's a story of survival and heroism, unimaginable evil and the search for redemption. There's a moral dilemma at the heart of the book, as there so often is with Picoult, but this one is on a much more epic scale. There's lots about this book which should have annoyed me (and has done in previous Picoult novels) - the cutesy character names and quirky habits (eg the barista in the bakery who only speaks in haikus), and the little life-affirming homilies which she likes to throw in at the end of chapters (".. there are some weeds that are just as beautiful as flowers", "Because in that terrible wonderful moment, I was the person everyone wanted to be... " that sort of thing). However, in the overall context of this memorable and emotionally harrowing book, they didn't bother me in the slightest. This is Picoult's best novel yet and I'd urge anyone who has dismissed her books in the past as `not for me' to try this one; hopefully you'll be as impressed as I was.
on 9 March 2014
As a young child in the 1970's the Holocaust was still a huge talking point in the media, although I never remember it being discussed at school. As a former history teacher, I have read as much as I can on the subject, not from a mawkish point of view, but I have always felt that if you can pass the message along, then people may hopefully never repeat the lesson - considering the world we live in today it may be falling on deaf ears. I haven't read Jodi Picoult for a while, and I picked this up just as a bit of light reading, without noting the synopsis. I am sure that historical purists would shudder at this novel, but the heart behind it, and the intriguing tale that untangles itself, is hugely compelling. While the modern day stories of Sage, a damaged young woman who has lost her parents, and Leo, and FBI agent committed to hunting SS Nazis, it is the histories of Minka and Josef that unveil the most. Minka is a survivor of the Holocaust, and Sage's grandmother, and Josef, a former SS guard who lives out another life in the U.S. and befriends Sage at a grief counselling group. The Holocaust will always be such an emotive subject but Picoult brings some human touches that from our place in time we find hard to understand: Minka is protected by a senior SS guard in the ghetto where she lives, and yet is appalled by the behaviour of the Jewish elder in charge of overseeing the ghetto. Josef's story is horrific in parts, but it does in some way explain what on earth went through the minds of young men who went from teenagers to mass murderers in less than a decade. The book never shies away from what the Jewish people went through, but it is in the ordinary details of everyday living that capture the story and make it interesting. It is how people survived and went on to live again. I won't spoil the quandary or the ending, but it is a long time since I have enjoyed book this much. I don't think as long as I live I will even understand how this atrocity happened, but I shall never want to stop reading, or learning more. It doesn't matter whether it is from a Nobel peace prize winner or a novelist, it is a lesson that needs to be passed down through every generation. Well done Ms. Picoult.
This is the first Jodi Picoult novel I've read. I got it mainly for the benefit of my wife, as a Picoult fan. However, she doesn't like the subject (she read Schindler's Ark, once only, and will never watch the film), and had to give up after 100 pages, so it was over to me. I found it slow going at first, but eventually I was hooked.
The novel consists of three stories interlinked in a complex manner. In the key middle section Ania, a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, tells her grand-daughter Sage of her experiences during the Holocaust. The start and end are mainly told by Sage, moving from her own demons to try to avenge the wrong done to Ania. Interpolated throughout are excerpts from the fable Ania wrote, before and during the war, about an "upior" [vampire], in which events gradually mirror with awful clarity the real life events of the main story.
The superbly crafted complexity is not limited to the structure. There is a lot of inter-related symbolism; for example, Sage's facial scar is not only a cause of her depression and self-inflicted loneliness, but also a metaphor for her guilt over her mother's death; the counterpoint is on her Ania's prison camp number tattoo, etched on her skin just as the horrors of the Holocaust are etched on her soul.
A recurrent theme is the impact of seeing people not as individuals but as faceless units of a group. This applies not only to the perception of the Jews by the Nazis, but in the other direction as well.
I wanted to know how it finished, but didn't want the book to end - always a good sign. There is an inspired, touching twist to end the story.
The jury will probably always be out on the pros and cons of historical fiction as a valid genre (as opposed to a book which, like Schindler's Ark, is a dramatization of real events). This novel goes a long way towards justifying the genre. The last words on this have to be those of, respectively, Ania and Sage:
"Once fiction is released into the world it becomes contagious, persistent; like the story of Pandora's box, a story that's freely given can't be contained any more."
"History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them".
on 21 August 2014
Jodi Picoult is expert at writing novels that get us thinking about all sorts of ethical issues that confront us in the world we live in today. This novel presents us with more curly issues to squirm over, and get us thinking about how we would react in the same situation. The front cover talks about this being 'an astonishing novel of redemption and forgiveness', and it certainly is that. Darn good read.
I seem to have read a lot of Holocaust-themed books lately, and although they make for disturbing and grisly reading, it is important that we do continue to read them. This novel is a Holocaust based story, yes, but it is also a story of great humanity and those tricky issues of how and if to forgive.
Sage Singer (hideously awful name - her sisters are called Saffron and Pepper!), is a young woman with her own truckload of guilt that she can't forgive herself for. She is virutally a recluse, working the night shift in a bakery, making breads and pastries being her only solace. She has few, if any friends, has very low self esteem and is generally a very unhappy person. The only bright light in her life is her grandmother, Minka, who survived the Holocaust and to whom she is very close.
At the grief group Sage attends, she strikes up an unusual friendship with an elderly man, Josef Weber, who one day asks Sage to help him die. It transpires he is also a Holocaust survivor, not however as a Jewish prisoner, but as an SS officer. His grief revolves around his inability to deal with what he has done in his past as an officer and camp guard. He can't live with his guilt any longer and so asks Sage to help him end it all.
In turn both Minka and Josef tell their stories. Intertwined with these two stories is another story that Minka, as a child and young woman made up and held onto during her time in the Lodz ghetto and the concentration camp. It is this story, that in the end saves them both. It is a big book, but well worth the time taken.
I've read all of Jodi Picoult's books in recent years and despite really enjoying them all, this one is her best yet. It's a departure from her usual formula but nonetheless it is a fabulous story and my review cannot possibly do it justice.
The present day story centres on Sage Singer. Sage is 25 years old and facially disfigured, she hides away, working at night in a bakery creating wonderful bread which she pours her heart and soul into. There are very few people she feels comfortable with - Mary, the ex-nun who runs the bakery and her married lover Adam. Her two sisters are now strangers to her. Sage lost her mother in tragic circumstances and the guilt she carries with her brings her to a grief counselling centre where she meets Josef. Her meetings with Josef, an elderly German man and pillar of the local community, become a bright spot in her life, until he makes an admission which shakes her to the core.
The middle part of the story is told by Minka, Sage's beloved grandmother. Minka's story begins with WW2, when as a young Polish Jewish girl, her life would be shattered by the atrocities of a cruel regime and she would never be that same person again.
Running through the book is a separate storyline of an Upior, the true point of which becomes clear later in the story.
This is a harrowing book to read at times. Minka's story was heartbreaking and the amount of research undertaken by the author to do justice to the survivors' stories stands out. However much you think you know of the Holocaust there are no words to describe the horror of death camps such as Auschwitz and there were times when I was in tears. Minka, in particular, has an amazing strength of character and shows true courage in her battle to survive.
The latter part of the book returns to Sage and Minka and how ultimately Sage deals with Josef's confession and the question of forgiveness and revenge.
This is a shocking and thought provoking story and one which stays with you long after you have finished reading.
on 2 April 2013
Been reading jp for a number of years. Every time a new one is out I am on pre-order but the last couple have not been as good. This however was fantastic ! I couldn't stop reading !! On until the early hours . I loved it how clever as she made you question yourself and sage . What is right and wrong ? The sadness and despair but the overwhelming positives from her grandmother . Tears cried over diff parts . Roll on the next hoping she has found that spark lost in the last couple .
on 11 May 2014
There's no denying that Jodi Picoult is an amazingly talented writer, she's clearly done her research for this book and Minka's account of the Holocaust is genuinely harrowing, but that section is the only thing I liked about it.
Sage is an incredibly unlikeable character, she listens to her Grandmother talk about being beaten, tortured and starved in Auschwitz, how every single person she ever loved had been murdered, how her best friend was shot in the face right in front of her and yet a few pages later Sage is still yapping about a scar on her face. To which Leo tells her that she needs to get some perspective so takes her to a synagogue... Is this a joke? Did her grandmothers testimony not provide perspective enough??!
There are also so many unnecessary characters that Picoult seems to add purely for some kind of comic relief but they are just taking up room in the first section that could have been used to build up the friendship between Josef and Sage which just seems to materialise out of nowhere. As well, the relationship between Leo and Sage is so false and cringeworthy that I had to skip most of it. I saw the twist at the end coming as soon as Minka spoke of the two SS officers by name and I thought it was brilliant but then not much came of it at all. I thought Picolut could have done so much more. I mean, is it not a bit strange that a Holocaust survivor and the German soldier who she worked for and formed a warped kind of friendship with, who beat her but also saved her life twice should end up living in the same country, the same state, the same town, streets away from each other? Am I the only one who thinks there is a bit of a wasted opportunity here for a much more explosive conclusion?
on 8 May 2013
Jodi Picoult has surpassed herself with her latest offering. Easily my favourite book by her - and there's not one I don't like. You would be forgiven for thinking that there couldn't be many taboo subjects upon which Jodi hasn't touched - or more like delved into, dug up, emoted over and wrung out to dry - but then we get The Storyteller......
Sage is a loner, an orphan who is still mourning her mother and detached from her two older sisters, she works all night as a baker and sleeps all day, keeping apart from the real world as much as she can because of a scar that makes her feel different and unwanted. Her only regular points of contact are an ex nun who owns the bakery, her married lover Adam, her ageing grandma and her grief group; it is here she meets Josef, an elderly man who after befriending Sage asks her to help him die....
Josef's story is that he used to be an SS guard at Auschwitz and he wants to die for what he did there. Coincidentally Sage's grandmother was a prisoner at Auschwitz and when Sage sets off an FBI investigation into Josef's confession Sage finds that the history she herself has tried to hide from is brought to the fore and that she has a lot to face up to.
Sage's grandmother Minka, tells us the harrowing, heartbreaking story of her life during the war, before and after Auschwitz. This makes up most of the book and is brilliantly researched and so fabulously described that the reader can almost feel and see things that occurred. Interspersed with these stories is another story about a mythical creature which makes the background stories of Josef, Minka and Sage more poignant and lends understanding to the reader.
Prepare for a gut wrenching read that will whisk you back in time to one of the worst atrocities the world has seen; you will be under the skin of each individual in this book, the sentiments and emotions are so raw, whether good or bad. There are parts that will be reminiscent of your history lessons or TV programmes, which Jodi tells with such heartfelt poignancy that you will need tissues as you weep at the sheer wasteful pointlessness of the Holocaust. I've read many, many books from being a teen until now about various aspects of WW2 and the holocaust and this is easily one of the best and most moving. Once you pick up this book, do not expect to put it down until it is finished and do not expect it to leave you straight away - you'll need a day or two to get your head around it. Do expect Minka to be one of your favourite characters and to hold a little place in your heart.
As always with Jodi, there is a moral to this tale - namely that one should never take anyone at face value, always look beyond the surface; but there is a bigger moral dilemma here, one which cannot be satisfactorily answered - can Sage forgive Josef? Does she have that right? And who is really culpable when it comes to something like war crime? As well as tugging at your heart strings this book will make you think and question and think again.
on 29 April 2014
I very much disliked the first third of the book. The grief counselling group seems to be put into the story to provide a stage where Sage meets Josef. However, this group is a dysfunctional cliche with judgemental patients and a counsellor who is more of a kindergarten nurse than a mental health professional. Although Sage has been going there for three years, she seeme to have not learned any lessons from the group, e.g. accepting emotions. She is very head-driven, which deprives her stories of a lot of insights.
Jodi Picoult did a lot of work to depict Sage and her family as Jewish. Josef on the other hand is thinking, talking and behaving like an American. Only in a few obvious situations is he German, e.g. he has a dachshund (I have never seen a German expat with a dachshund) and he orders Sage to shut up, so his true identity as a former concentration camp officer comes to the surface... It would have taken a German exchange student to read the book draft to make Josef a bit more German and to avoid the translation errors.
The best part of the book is Minka's story. This might be the best part, because it is based on real stories derived from interviews with people with similar experiences. Josef and the Germans' stance towards the Holocaust today are unfortunately not as well-observed, but research on the topics of remorse and forgiveness does make up for it.
In general, this is an okay book. Is is technically well written, did not trigger many emotions in me, and makes a quick, entertaining, informative read.
Sage is a baker in a small New Hampshire town. She bears the scars from a car accident which make her self-conscious about facing the world, so she largely keeps to herself. Nevertheless, she befriends Josef, an elderly German man who has lived in the town for many years. Josef is well known in the community, friendly and warm. However he has a secret, one which he chooses to share with Sage: he is a former SS officer. Sage reacts to this pretty much as anyone would: with disbelief followed by revulsion and anger. Her impulse is to report Josef, even after all these years, and make him face justice.
However Sage also has a very personal reason for her reaction. She considers herself an atheist but she was raised as a Jew and she knows that her grandmother (Minka) was in a concentration camp during the War. Minka has never spoken about what she went through, preferring to leave it firmly in the past. She even keeps her identifying tattoo concealed at all times. Over the course of the book, Minka's story will be told. While I read her account of what she went through, there was a small part of me that felt like Picoult had cobbled together the "greatest hits" from The Pianist/Schindler's List/Night and other prominent accounts of the Holocaust. But as I reminded myself, we only know these stories because survivors have recounted them. Everything that Minka describes happened, if not to her, to many others. And it makes for harrowing reading. What's more, it's a very effective way of removing any doubt or sympathy that the reader may initially have had for kindly old Josef.
This is a compulsively readable book. To me, Minka's voice was so brave and real that the book was slightly diminished after moving on from her story, but it keeps some final twists for the end.