Jodi Picoult fans will be familiar with her themes of court-room drama and moral dilemmas, she really is a master in this genre, never quite spelling out the ending, and always leaving the ultimate decision about what happens for the reader to decide.
The Storyteller is published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton at the end of March in the UK and is a step in a different direction for Picoult. Whilst still concentrating on moral issues, the court-room drama is missing this time. However, this really doesn't matter, for this novel concentrates on one of the most distressing and atrocious periods in the history of man - the Holocaust during World War II
The reader is gently introduced to Sage Singer in part one of the novel. Sage is a lonely girl, badly scarred from a car accident, grieving badly for her Mother who died three years ago and in love with a man who is married to someone else. Sage hides herself away from the world, working nights in a Bakery - replicating the bread recipes handed down from her Father, speaking only to her co-workers and the other members of the grief group that she attends. It is at the grief group that Sage meets Josef; a well-loved member of the local community, now in his nineties and missing his wife who died some time ago. Josef doesn't judge Sage by the scars on her face and appears uninterested in them, they soon form a close friendship, with Sage visiting Josef in his home.
The Storyteller seems at first a gentle, easy to read, well thought out story - with characters that are realistic, if a little flawed, and at times a little annoying. Then - Wham!, Josef drops his bombshell. He wants Sage to help him to die, he confesses to having been an SS Officer during the war, and claims that he has murdered many Jews whilst working in the concentration camps. Sage's family is Jewish, her Grandmother Minka is an Auschwitz survivor, although she has never spoken about her time there.
Sage struggles with Josef's confession, she is horrified that her friend could be a mass-murderer and makes contact with Leo Stein from the Department of Justice. Leo has spent his working life tracking down Nazi war criminals.
Part Two of the novel tells Minka's story, from her happy childhood with loving parents to the horrors of being persecuted by Nazi officers - first in the ghettos of the town in which she lived, and then in the concentration camps. Reading Minka's story is harrrowing, and painful, and emotionally draining. The depth of Jodi Picoult's research shines through in her descriptive writing and nothing is covered up or hidden. The experiences, the conditions, the smells, the sounds are all perfectly portrayed and I defy anyone to read Minka's story all the way through without having to take a break. The language is so emotive and the scenes conjured up are so realistic that my breath was taken away on more than one occasion.
Threaded through the whole novel is another story - one of beasts and creatures that can tear a human from limb to limb and features a young girl who works in a bakery. This story was written by Minka and at first it seems to be just a fairy-story, not until later, does the reader realise that in fact, this too is Minka's story and how she dealt with the horrors that were around her on a daily basis.
The final part of the story concentrates on Sage, and her dilemma about what to do about Josef. Leo Stein is sure about what should be done, but Sage struggles so much with Josef's confession. Once more, the ending of the novel allows the reader to debate internally whether the conclusion was the right ending - and makes one ask oneself 'What would I have done?'
I would be wrong to say that I 'enjoyed' The Storyteller, the subject matter is too harrowing to be classed as enjoyable. However, I am so very very glad that I've read it - it made a huge impact on me. There is a lot of fiction that concentrates on World War II, and the horrors of the concentration camps, but this story really is incredible. Jodi Picoult creates voices that really do speak to the reader, and characters that are not conventional, yet could be our neighbour.
The Storyteller is haunting and raises so many questions. The writing, the sense of place and the characterisation is superb. It is an immense story and I'd recommend it highly.
Jodi Picoult will be touring the UK during March and April 2013, to speak about The Storyteller - details of the events can be found here