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Jodi Picoult’s previous work is renowned for its poignant links to relevant ethical and moral issues, and her latest novel The Storyteller definitely follows suit in that respect. Largely based upon the harrowing events of World War 2, Picoult creates chains of narratives that entwine and unfold in completely unpredictable ways.
Main protagonist Sage Singer, whose troubled past is never truly explained until the very ending of the book, leads a life of solitude and guilt following the death of her mother. She feels like an outsider due to obvious scarring on her face and is seemingly content with her work as a nocturnal baker for ‘Our Daily Bread’ – a little bakery situated in the foothills of a Catholic shrine in New Hampshire. Through attending a grief group to help come to terms with her mother’s death, Sage meets and befriends Josef, a loved and respected OAP in the local community who suffers from a similar loneliness due to the death of his wife. When Josef confides in Sage and asks her to carry out his final wish, she is confronted with a huge moral dilemma that questions the boundaries of right and wrong and her capacity to forgive.
The Storyteller is incredibly successful in the way in which it uses multiple narrators to not only carry on the same story chronologically but goes back in history for a large section of the novel. The middle section, narrated by Sage’s grandmother Minka, talks of the inhumanities of the war from a first person perspective. Picoult has obviously worked hard to make this section as true to life as possible; there is always a danger of underwhelming and misinterpreting the horrors of real historical events such as the Holocaust, and many attempts both literary and cinematically have verged on disrespectful. Although for me this is still a story that should only be told by those who survived rather than through the fabrications of a fictional interpretation, Picoult seems aware of this issue in some respects, and claims that she uses her novel as a means of passing on information to younger generations who would otherwise be naïve.
Throughout the novel there is another story being told, written in italics to indicate a change in narrator. This story comes in short sections and at first doesn’t seem to fit, the story of a mysterious vampire terrorizing a village and killing the narrator’s father. As the main storyline progresses we realise that there is, of course, a reason behind these interceptions of seemingly irrelevant narrative. The story was written at the time of the Holocaust by Minka as a child, a means of escapism, constructing wonderful links between the horrors and monsters of fiction and non-fiction. It encourages a reflection on the capacity and brutality of man, and the worrying reality of our ability to become desensitized to moral rights and wrongs.
The Storyteller seems to have all bases covered; not only is it a novel with a strong historical background confronting serious issues, but the story is also laced with love, loss, family, friendship and even the odd hints of humour. Despite all of these areas that Picoult delves into, what remains strongest and most memorable is how she depicts the difficulty and distress of telling a personally significant story, once buried in the past. At the end of relaying the events of the war, Minka tells her granddaughter ‘I know how powerful a story can be. It can change the course of history. It can save a life. But it can also be a sinkhole, a quicksand in which you become stuck, unable to write yourself free.’ The storytellers in this novel tell of both personal and collective horrors – stories that changed not only their life but had a much greater level of impact than they would ever imagine. It was certainly a book that I won’t be forgetting for a while and one that poses far more questions than it answers.