Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses… and then he confesses his darkest secret—he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?
The StoryTeller is a Goodreads Choice Nominee for fiction 2013, and deservedly so. It is told through the differing point of views of Sage, Minka, and Leo. At the beginning of the novel we meet Sage Singer, a girl who hides herself away working nights in a bakery. She is badly scarred from a car accident, and prefers the solitude of baking bread to engaging with people. Alone in the world after the death of both her father and her mother, she speaks only to the other workers in the bakery and the grief group attendees. At the grief group she meets Josef. A man well into his nineties, who appears to be a sweet old man, well-respected by the local community. He too is alone in the world, his wife has died and all he has left is the unconditional love of his dog. This unlikely pair of grieving souls form a strange friendship, drawn together by the deep scars, Sage’s visible, Josef’s hidden. Josef’s scars have been inflicted on others. Deep wounds, that he carries within his soul, and seeks release from.
The shocking twist in the tale comes with Josef. He is not at all what he appears to be. In fact nobody would believe that this pillar of the community was an SS Officer during the Second World War, who worked in the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz. To make matters worse Sage’s grandmother is Jewish, and was also at Auschwitz. Sage has not been an active member in the Jewish faith, and works alongside an ex nun.Josef reveals that he wants Sage to help him die. Sage struggles with her conscience and decides that the right course of action is to contact Leo Stain, a Nazi criminal war hunter.
At the core of the StoryTeller is the concept of guilt. Both Sage, and Josef are guilty. Josef’s guilt is on a massive scale, so therefore cannot ever be forgiven. Sage feels a sense of guilt,and this guilt is caused by events that may or may not have caused the death of her mother. Her guilt drives her away from the remaining members of her family. Both Sage and Josef hide, driven out of sight by their remorse. It is interesting that Jodi Picoult elects that Josef, the heinous war criminal, is the one to hide away by adopting a new persona. Moreover he gets away with it for many years. It is evident that his actions as a war criminal are still engrained in his psyche, he knows how to survive. Whereas Sage, bound and scarred by her own sense of guilt, chooses to distance herself from people, she is the one who disappears out of sight, who is invisible. Yet her guilt is miniscule compared to Josef’s terrible actions as an SS officer.
Part two of the novel tells us Sage’s grandmother Minka’s story. I found this part of the tale, a shocking progression from her happy childhood memories, to the ghettos, and then to the starvation, deprivation, and sheer terror, of the concentration camps. Jodi Picoult has obviously extensively researched this period of history, and creates a moving and absorbing tale in Minka’s story. It works so well. She manages to create believable characters whose pain and suffering become so understandable, and poignant. I did find myself wiping away a tear, whilst reading the second part of the novel, so you’ve been warned!
As if this is not enough, Jodi Picoult adds into this mix yet another story of a creature, the Upior, who tears humans apart. This story is Minka’s tale. The story within the story does much to illustrate the horror of what man does to his fellow humans, behaving like a beast.
I also found layers of meaning in the references to baking in the novel. The simple things in life like a freshly baked piece of bread or patisserie, made by a loving parent, can be taken away from you in mere seconds and replaced by unimaginable horrors.
There are many threads and points of view interwoven into the plot. So this is a novel that works best for close rather than light reading! Can a Nazi war criminal change? Obviously whatever he has done now to make amends cannot wipe out the terrors of the atrocities that he must have committed. Leo, is the one that keeps this point of view firmly in place, even though at times we see Sage struggling with the same dilemma.
The conclusion of the story focuses on Sage, and her ongoing process of delivering Josef to the authorities. In this part of the book, we learn that Sage struggles with Josef’s confession, and questions of morality are debated via her character. There are major spoilers at the end of the book, so I will not spoil your reading of it by even hinting at them. Just suffice it to say, that this is a very thought-provoking book, that I would highly recommend to fans of Jodi Picoult, and to readers of historical fiction, it’s a must.
My favourite Storyteller Quotes:
“Inside each of us is a monster; inside each of us is a saint. The real question is which one we nurture the most, which one will smite the other.”
“I don’t know what it is about death that makes it so hard. I suppose it’s the one-sided communication; the fact that we never get to ask our loved one if she suffered, if she is happy wherever she is now…if she is somewhere. It’s the question mark that comes with death that we can’t face, not the period.”
“What he did was wrong. He doesn’t deserve your love. But he does deserve your forgiveness, because otherwise he will grow like a weed in your heart until it’s choked and overrun. The only person who suffers, when you squirrel away all that hate, is you.”
“You can blame your ugliness for keeping people at bay, when in reality you’re crippled by the thought of letting another person close enough to potentially scar you even more deeply. You can tell yourself that it’s safer to love someone who will never really love you back, because you can’t lose someone you never had.”