Jodi Picoult is well-known for her morally ambiguous tales that wrench a reader’s heart out. In that sense, “The Storyteller” is no different.
The novel follows a young woman named Sage, who works nights at a bakery and tries to distance herself from most friends, shamed by facial scars caused by a recent accident. Sort of by accident, she befriends a 90-something bakery customer, Josef, who also happens to be in her grief support group.
He also happens to have a secret: Josef was a Nazi official at Auschwitz. And now he wants Sage to assist in his suicide.
The novel weaves back and forth in narration between Sage and Josef, at first. We also hear from Leo, a federal agent in the office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions, whom Sage calls when she decides early on to report Josef; and Minka, Sage’s grandmother, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz.
The sections in which Josef recounts his actions as an SS officer made my stomach turn — there is, as one might expect, a great deal of violence and disregard for Jewish families. And where Minka describes her time in the Polish ghetto and in Auschwitz (really, the main middle chunk of the novel), I pulled out the tissues. Picoult has a powerful way with words, and Minka’s character suffers tremendous loss.
But I was most invested in the idea of forgiveness — for when Josef asks Sage to kill him, he also asks her for something greater: To, first, forgive him.
I whipped through the book, staying up far too late one weeknight to finish. It’s a well-done story of the human relationships that became all the more complicated in World War II — and the guilt, anger and memories that have lasted in the decades since.
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