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Friday March 29, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Wednesday April 24, 2013 MYT 2:12:32 PM
by elizabeth tai
A tried and true formula is broken with mixed results.
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria, 480 pages
FANS of Jodi Picoult know what to expect of her books. For one, her novels often revolve around an issue that is in the forefront of public debate. We read about date rape in The Tenth Circle (2006), school shootings in Nineteen Minutes (2007), sibling organ donors in My Sister’s Keeper (2003) and being falsely accused of a rape in Salem Falls (2001). Readers could almost always expect the characters to be dragged to court at the end of the book; we are thus creatively immersed (and educated) about a debate that is going on in the public sphere.
However, there are times when Picoult breaks this fairly successful mould. Second Glance (2008), a book that straddles the supernatural, romance and mystery genres, is one of her most creative works and one – that I discovered when I interviewed her for The Star in 2008 – she deems her favourite. Personally, it is also my favourite, as it is unpredictable, refreshing and genre-defying.
In The Storyteller, Picoult makes another attempt to change the formula ... but with mixed results.
The story begins slowly as we are introduced to Sage Singer, a baker who is traumatised by an accident that has left her scarred and her family shattered. Singer hopes to dispel her loneliness and grief by working nights at a bakery and by having an affair with a married man.
Somehow, she strikes up an unusual friendship with Josef Weber, an elderly man who comes to her bakery. Perhaps she finds a kindred spirit in him, as he too is grieving over a lost loved one. However, when Josef tells her about a long-buried secret and asks her for an extraordinary favour, Singer’s already-complicated world is muddied even further and she’s caught in a moral dilemma.
Now, Picoult is rather coy about Sage’s past and source of grief – she only offers vague allusions to it. Perhaps that is why I found it difficult to warm up to Sage. She seems too self-absorbed, too involved in her own pain. It becomes tiring after a while to read about her negativity when there are far more interesting people (Josef and Minka’s, Sage’s grandmother, for instance) that I’d prefer to find out more about.
Then there’s this strange tale of an uipyr (vampire) dumped in right at the beginning without an explanation. It feels out of place and seems totally unrelated to the rest of the story, and I found myself skimming this part so that I could quickly get back to the main story.
As a result, I almost gave up on the book in the beginning out of sheer impatience until Josef drops his bomb of a revelation. Luckily, from then on it is a gallop to the last page, as I wondered where Picoult was going to take us with the reveal. When Grandma Minka begins to share her story about World War II’s Holocaust, that’s when the story really, really picks up.
Things become clearer as we hear the story from different points of view (a very typical Picoult style). There’s the story told from Josef and Sage’s point of view. Then there’s the story told by Leo, an FBI agent, and Minka’s point of view.
In the end, the vampire story which I deemed irritating turned out to be an interesting metaphor for Josef’s struggle for forgiveness and also an attempt by “the storyteller” to understand the nature of evil and what she went through at the hands of such evil.
Picoult is certainly a gifted writer – her lyrical writing style and the different threads that run through the story were so interesting that I had to get to the ending as quick as I could – in fact, I completed the book in just a day.
However, her tendency to use different viewpoints to tell one story doesn’t always work. And in The Storyteller, the technique only served to muddy what could be an arresting tale about evil and redemption.
The main question that bugged me about The Storyteller is this: Who is this book really about? Is it about Sage, who needs closure after the tragic accident? Is it about Josef, who seeks forgiveness and relief from his guilt? Is it Minka’s story about how she tried so hard to bury her past but how it returned anyway to haunt her in an unexpected way?
Some character viewpoints felt unnecessary. What purpose is there to hear Leo going on about his faltering love life, for one?
The novel would have been far, far better, I feel, if it had been written as a straight-forward narrative from Minka and Josef’s point of view. Because, really, I feel the book is really about them. I have a feeling that the tale – no matter the conclusion – would have been far richer and more satisfying that way than the messy version we have here.
It is a very challenging task to write about an issue as dark and heavy-hitting as the Holocaust. To her credit, Picoult’s story does raise intriguing questions about how good men can be capable of evil. Unfortunately, The Storyteller’s lack of focus diluted what could have been a really sharp story. And, sadly, some of the characters’ journeys just don’t reach a satisfying conclusion.
Or perhaps this is Picoult’s way of saying that in life, closure is never a guarantee.
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