Fair warning – this is NOT a light read. At all. I completely adore Jodi Picoult as an author, for many reasons; one of the main ones is her skill at playing devil’s advocate. She creates believable, relatable, three-dimensional characters, and as the reader you find yourself starting to understand a point of view you never thought you would, ever. I’ve written about how Picoult does this before (in reference to Jojo Moyes, another thought-provoking author), but I expected this topic to stretch that empathy to breaking point. Because The Storyteller is about the Holocaust.
The narrative follows Sage, a young baker who hides from the world, coming out at night to bake and to attend her grief counselling group. We start to learn more about her; she has a disfiguring scar on her face. She attends group because she lost her mum. These two things appear to be related – she blames herself for her mum’s death. She’s nominally – culturally – Jewish, but pretty much considers herself not-Jewish. Not anything, really. (This is another hallmark of a wonderful author – the pace with which the characters and the action unfold themselves, so the reader learns each detail just as they’re supposed to.)
Then, Sage meets Josef, an old man who has been coming to her grief counselling group for a couple of weeks, staying silent and unobtrusive. They become unlikely friends, until Josef drops a metaphorical bombshell, and Sage is faced with the biggest moral dilemma of her life.
I’ll say it again – ooooft. I was completely engrossed, to the point that I didn’t notice that a) it was past 1am when I finished and b) my sister had put a box of tissues next to me because c) I was crying. Unlike many other novels which explore controversial issues, Picoult made no attempt to justify the ‘other side’ of the debate (thankfully, as in this case that would have meant attempting to justify genocide!) but what she did do was a huge amount of research and character development so that the reader could start to get some insight into how it could have been allowed to happen. Specifically by the millions of ordinary people who stood by, supported the Third Reich, or took part in the system that perpetrated these atrocities.
If, like me, you connect better with fiction than non-fiction, then this is a really important book to read. I don’t want to divulge any more of the plot (again, mostly because of the artistry with which it unfolds in the way intended by the author) but I will simply urge y’all to read this story, if you can, especially in today’s political climate.
The only further thing I will say about it is that I experienced some truly chilling moments of recognition while reading. I’m looking at you, Trump: the scapegoating, the stoking of existing prejudices and otherness, the rabid (misplaced and misused) nationalism – even some of the rhetoric – it’s completely terrifying how familiar some of what I read about post-Great War Germany is when compared to the politics and international wars and disasters of today.
Scary, heartbreaking stuff.