Shades of Grey: The Storyteller

One of the things about reading a lot, one book quickly following the one before it, is that you notice patterns, themes in subject matter that you might not otherwise notice.

Over the last two years I’ve had many books hit my reading pile which are set in WW1 and WW2. It’s not a topic I’d previously been that interested in, but after reading titles like In Falling Snow, and Overseas I’ve become a bit taken in by the period.

the storytellerThe specific focus on holocaust and displacement recollections in The Book Thief, The Treasure Box and now Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller (Allen and Unwin) are particularly compelling. Horrifying yes, but at each moment they feel important, a story that must be told, that we can, indeed must, learn from.

Jodi’s most recent novel is the story of Sage, her new friend Josef and her grandmother, a holocaust surviver…

Sage Singer is a young woman who has been damaged by her past. Her solitary night work as a baker allows her to hide from the world and focus her creative energies on the beautiful bread she bakes.

Yet she finds herself striking up an unlikely friendship. Josef Weber is a quite, grandfatherly man, well respected in the community; everyone’s favourite retired teacher and Little League coach.

One day he asks Sage for a favour: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses.

Then Josef tells her that he deserves to die – and why.

As you’d expect from this teaser, Picoult’s novel is full of moral dilemmas. As she does so well, at many points in the book you’ll be asking yourself ‘what would I do?’ and probably coming up with a pretty interesting answer. There are lots of shades of grey in the story, as Sage ponders on what to do with the secret she’s been entrusted with by Josef. Still, in typical Picoult style, Sage’s eventual decision and actions are decided, determined and uncompromising. This creates a really punchy plot, and leads to Sage’s own repair.

At the heart of this novel are the long buried memories of Sage’s grandmother, Minka.  A proficient storyteller, Jodi avoids simply telling us the story of Minka’s torment, rather she provides a context, current and perplexing into which Minka’s story is weaved. Her experience as a Polish Jew, persecuted and punished in many terrifying ways is peppered with survival and small miracles. Her recollections of her father’s aromatic baking are as important to her story as those of the cold and filthy work camps in which she was held. These contrasts give a strength to both the light and the dark of her memories. In addition, her own treasured writing, her story of the upiór – the Polish version of a vampire – draws haunting, largely unintentional parallels between these dark fictional creatures and the German soldiers who tormented her.

“If you had to pack your whole life into a suitcase – not just the practical things, like clothing, but the memories of the people you had last and the girl you had once been – what would you take?…

…In the end I took all of these things, and the copy of The Diary of a Lost Girl, and Majer’s baby shoes, and Basia’s wedding veil. And, of course, my writing. It filled four notebooks now. I tucked three of them inside my case and carried the other in a satchel. Into my boots I wedged my Christian papers, beside the gold coins. My father was silent as he held the door to the apartment that was not ours open for the last time.”

The catharsis that comes with the release of these memories is moving indeed.

The Storyteller is a fairly long novel, and it did take me a little while to get through it. Still, at no point did I find myself rushing ahead or wishing for the ending. I was drawn into Minka’s memories, Josef’s remorse and Sage’s struggle to come out of hiding. Well worth the time taken to read this story.

If you’d like to read an expert from Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller you can do so here…