The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like all Jodi Picoult's books, this one had a whole mess of issues to mull over and discuss in book clubs. Her books always hit right on hot-button issues, and are great for getting discussions going in groups. I am a sucker for that stuff and eat it up. I love mulling over issues where there isn't one clear answer, arguing with myself and trying to decide which side of the issue I fall on.
I know several people who have said they don't like reading WWII stories that aren't true, since there are so many amazing true stories from survivors out there. I happen to agree with that. BUT. This book isn't so much about the holocaust as it is about sin and forgiveness, redemption and guilt. The author may have only chosen the holocaust because it is the modern atrocity that as a culture we fixate on as the most unforgivable situation imaginable (after all, if asked for the most heinous true-life villain, Hitler would come to mind first for a good number of people).
Although I didn't relate to the main character of this book very well, and I didn't care for her much either, that didn't matter. Somehow Picoult can make me love a book even when its characters are flawed to the point that I can't root for them. That's a rare gift for an author, as I hardly ever like a book if I don't like its characters. But like the historical aspect, the characters are secondary. As for the rest of the characters, I did like a good number of them. Sage seemed a bit self-obsessed, but the others were more engaging. Minka's section began a bit slowly for me, but soon became the focus of the book. Josef's section drew me in and held me in a choke-hold until the end. I wish it had been longer. And though death should be expected in a novel about the Nazi concentration camps, a few of the deaths in this one knocked the breath out of me. They happened so suddenly.
Aside from that, and on to the issue. Can we forgive someone for the most horrific crimes, if they truly repent? Can a life of service and good deeds ever redeem someone for the things they did in the past, if those things include participating in genocide? Is Franz the real monster, for knowing what he did was wrong and still doing it, while Reinert truly believed in the cause he was serving? Is evil more despicable if it is recognized by the evil-doer, or if it is embraced as right by the evil-doer? Can we forgive someone for something they did to someone else?
Although I will continue to ponder some of these moral dilemmas, I did find one of the most satisfying conclusions in this book was when it explains how murder is the only unforgivable sin in the Jewish faith, because it is the only sin in which the sinner cannot ask forgiveness for the one sinned against. I thought that was really wonderful in its simplicity and sensibleness.
As for how these questions relate to the book, I did feel that Franz was the more likeable character, and I truly felt for him. I wanted him to find some sort of peace in death, although I wasn't sure I could have forgiven him in Sage's position. I didn't think it was fair of him to ask her forgiveness, but it did make a certain amount of sense. (view spoiler)[ I guessed WAY ahead of time that Josef was actually Franz, which was a little disappointing, as I like the surprise twist at the end of most Picoult books. I was surprised that Sage didn't find out until she killed him, though. I felt like it was awful of him to pretend to be more despicable than he was so that she would kill him, although I also felt that his making himself into a monster showed some of the remorse he felt was real. However, if he felt so much remorse, why didn't he turn himself in after the war instead of hiding for all those years? (hide spoiler)]
A few things bothered me in the book. I'm one of those people who notice little inconsistencies or instances where logic fails. Once I notice something amiss, it's hard to let it go. Maybe someone can answer one of the questions I was left with at the novel's conclusion.
1. How did Josef get Minka's notebook? She threw it in a guard's face and ran, AFTER she had left the concentration camp where Josef worked. How did the notebook find its way back to him?
2. Once Minka identified a picture of Reinert from the camps, how was that supposed to prove that he was Josef or that Josef was a Nazi? Leo says that they need proof Josef is telling the truth. But Minka never identifies him. She identifies an old picture from the camp, where Reinert was already reprimanded for the death of the girl. Minka's ID never points any guilt at Josef, but at Reinert. Therefore, she failed to give enough proof for Leo to arrest Josef, so why was he going to arrest him? On what grounds?
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes hot-button issues, or who likes to ponder moral questions. It will leave you pondering for a long, long time.
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