As with most of her books, this one, too, was very well researched and very well written. However, sometimes, the silly sex and hackneyed expressions used by the main characters, juxtaposed against the background of a serious Holocaust investigation, seemed to me, to trivialize the monstrosity of the event and the war, although I do not believe that was the author’s intent.
The Storyteller is a book within a book. Minka was once an aspiring writer. Her story is two-fold because in the tale she created, about a young girl and a demon, a story that during the war distracted so many from their pain, she explores the existence of dark, horrifying, supernatural and unimaginable events, and observes people’s reactions to them, but then it becomes an allegory about herself and her own unimaginable experiences. Jodi Picoult raises many questions in her book, and although I didn’t find the book that well done, I found the questions she raises, the ideas she makes the reader consider, enormously insightful and important. She has taken a rather heavily used subject and made it slightly new again with her perspective, so that it is worthwhile to read for that reason alone.
The story revolves around several characters. Using Mary, a former nun, Sage, who declares herself an atheist, although she was born a Jew (Hitler would still have called her a Jew), Leo, a Jew and a Nazi hunter, Joseph, a Nazi, Adam, an adulterer, and Minka, a camp survivor, the author crafts a story that explores the subject of the Holocaust. Is she seeking to discover if it is simply the nature of the beast that causes the savage behavior, so that horrors like genocide will simply always exist, or seeking to prove that they can be prevented? Is it that the beast can’t help himself, because he is simply a beast or is it that someone allows the beast to flourish?
Sage, and an elderly man, Joseph, meet at grief counseling; both have recently suffered a significant loss. Joseph makes a very strange request of her. He wants her to help him end his life. Who is Joseph, and why does he want to end his life? Further, why ask a stranger for help of that kind? Sage was a troubled woman who carried painful memories she could not resolve. Apparently, Joseph was a troubled man who also carried a burden of painful memories and deeds. Minka, Sage’s grandmother, was my heroine. She was brave and honorable all her life, but her memories were the most painful of all. Each of the characters featured had secrets and lies that dictated how they faced and lived their lives. Would they resolve their issues? Could they even be resolved?
Picoult reopens the wound of the Holocaust, which much like Minka’s book, also defies reality. At first, I thought, she seemed to be trying to keep it festering, as in “we will never forget”. However, I believe, in the end, she was seeking to find answers about the why of it and the resolution of it, so that life might continue without its constant hovering shadow hanging over the lives and memories of those painfully touched by it. Eventually, would the subject of the Holocaust and its lessons die with its victims and perpetrators? Should it, or should we keep its memory alive so that we may learn from it?
Does everyone have the capacity for evil? Are things always as they seem? Do witnesses always see accurately? Is evil ever a forgivable sin? Were Sage’s scars symbolic of the deep emotional and physical scars that the victims and perpetrators inevitably carried with them their entire lives? The dilemma is explored well, but the story, used as the vehicle, is a bit trite. Often, the tale was simply too philosophical and waxed too poetic. Even the love story felt completely contrived. Some of the dialogue was just too corny, as in, “I’m a federal agent, if I tell you, I have to kill you”, or the references to CSI and Law and Order which tended to diminish the seriousness of the underlying themes of the book.
At the end, the reader will ask themselves many questions that have been asked numerous times before and will also discover some new ones. Where does the responsibility for the carnage belong? On whose shoulders should it fall? Were they just obeying orders? Were so many unaware of the brutality of the concentration camps or did they turn a blind eye for their own selfish reward? Are there any forgivable excuses for the heinous behavior? Is it even possible to forgive or forget the barbarism of the Nazis? Although, in my eyes, they were despicable, it was not so in everyone’s eyes. The reader will have to internalize all of these theories and decide for themselves whether evil can ever be justified or forgiven. Each will see the problem Sage faces with different eyes, different mindsets and very different backgrounds. Who has the right to play G-d? Does anyone? If we have not walked in their shoes can we fully understand or judge their plight? In the end, does the book resolve anything? I was not sure when I turned the final page. For me, I don’t believe there is ever an explanation for evil or an excuse for it. What will other readers think?
As I write, I realize that the book is more interesting than I thought, at first, because it makes the reader think about so many questions that are unresolved today and of the causes of the chaos which precedes monstrous events, events that will surely continue to exist in the future if we don’t give the past enough credit and thought, if we don’t learn from it, if we don’t learn how to respond to it appropriately, if we don’t learn how to end the vicious cycle of greed, envy and hate.
***As an aside, I wondered what was meant by the inclusion of the story about “the wandering Jew” and Jesus, and what was meant by the image of Christ that was baked in the bread? Were they symbols of a strong religious fervor and belief, or were they symbols of the superstitions that keep anti-Semitism alive, or symbols for the reasons that we are all so divided, or symbols of the fanaticism and rush to conclusions that drives unrest, or of the exaggerations that we are all prone to that foment and maintain the superstitions and the mistrust of “the other”?