Jul 27 2013

Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

3 out of 5 stars

Jodi Picoult is an author that needs no introduction as she has sat atop the New York Times Best Seller list numerous times in her career. This was, however, the first book of hers that I have read and I must say it is easy to see why she belongs on such a prestigious list, at least for this book. Her storytelling is sincere and thought-provoking, and while I may have both negative and positive remarks on the novel as a whole, there is no doubt in my mind that she puts her soul into her art and that is the mark of a true writer.

The book centres mostly around Sage, a twenty-something year old, who works nights at a bakery so she can hide a scar on her face that she feels makes her terribly unattractive. Her night job also enables her to hide from her grief over her dead parents, and her shameful secret relationship with a married man. During the day she attends a grief counselling group once a week and it is there that she meets an old German man, Josef, who quickly becomes her confidant. But everything changes for Sage when Josef confesses to her that he was a Nazi soldier stationed at the very same concentration camp that her Jewish grandmother was held at. Sage reports Josef to the FBI and an investigation begins to discover if this man, whom everyone believes to be one of the nicest old men in town, is really who he claims he was.

Through hearing Josef’s story, the FBI agent’s story, and Minka’s story some very real issues are raised about the intertwining of good and evil in each human being, as well as the question of forgiveness, vengeance and justice. This book would make a very good addition to any high school study of the holocaust because it acutely raises these questions but never implies there is a simple black and white solution. For example, on page 106 Sage asks of Leo, the FBI agent, “Is his work vengeance? Or justice? There is a fine line between the two, and when I try to focus on it, it becomes smaller and less clear.”. Or later, when Josef is done telling his story and he states, “What I mean to tell you, now, is that the same truth holds. This could be you, too. You think never. You think, not I. But at any given moment we are capable of doing what we least expect.”

The story is compelling and the subject matter important, but when it came to dissecting the actual writing of the story, however, I found myself a bit disappointed. To begin with, as a caveat, I will admit that I am a literary fiction reader and so my review comes from the bias of someone who is used to that kind of a book. The thing about Picoult is that she is fully capable of writing sentences and paragraphs that simply drip with beauty, but she doesn’t seem willing to do that full time in this story. As I began to read the book I found little gems here and there, such as on page 8, “You can relinquish your home to move into assisted living, or have a child move overseas, or see a spouse vanish into dementia. Loss is more than just death, and grief is the gray shape-shifter of emotion”, but I found myself hungering for more. It bothered me that an author obviously able to write with force would allow her writing to fall into a more typical style.

Until I got to part 2. Part 2 of the novel is a tour de force and truly an achievement; it is so visceral and real. This section of the novel deals entirely with the story of a holocaust survivor and I admire the fact that this section in itself takes up well over 150 pages; it would seem shameful, almost, to try to put down the recollections of a survivor (even a fictional one) in a single chapter. Picoult’s dedication to details in this time period, and her researching of historic facts, as well as her obvious knowledge of real survivors makes this section feel real. We’ve all read holocaust survivor stories before, but I must admit that this rendition was perhaps the hardest one I have ever read; for though the characters were not real, their experiences were. This is where Picoult really shines as an author as well as her voice through Minka is a beautiful piece of literature, of story, of truth. Her descriptions in this section are breathtaking, for example on page 209 as she describes SS soldiers, “They smelled like hatred.” Everything took on a new life and I suppose this was intentional as Minka was a writer herself. As hard as it was to read about the atrocities of the holocaust, I found myself revelling in the beautiful way it was written.

I know that there is a need, especially in a story such as this where multiple characters are written in first person, to vary your voice and vocabulary and that was likely why Picoult chose to reserve her most visceral writing for Minka, but I still found myself wishing she had found a way to put more of that kind of writing into her other characters. Instead I found that when compared to Minka everyone else felt rather shallow and one-dimensional and that is a shame given the statements the novel is attempting to make.

Picoult’s use of a literary device of a separate story intertwining throughout the book actually confused me greatly when I first started it. The book actually begins with the start of a different tale in italics, a prologue of sorts, of a young girl sitting in a bakery with her father. As I said, this confused me at first, as I had no idea who these characters were, where they were, or even what time they were supposed to be in. I think that Picoult could have found some creative way to anchor these characters right from the get-go instead of leaving them in limbo for as long as she did. It drew away from the story itself for me, because I was constantly trying to figure out what this story meant. However, the book is called “The Storyteller” and perhaps Picoult meant for us to simply assume that there would be a story apart from the main narrative. In any case once the story is explained it mirrors the events that unfold in the book beautifully and helps to enforce and deepen the themes.

When the book returns to Sage’s story from Minka’s I found myself focusing on a few things I wish Picoult could have done better after such an incredible feat of writing. For starters there is a great deal of stress placed on the fact that Sage thinks she is ugly because of a horrible scar on her face. This scar is alluded to again and again, but the story of its origin is painstakingly hidden. Too painstakingly. When telling a story it is important to have these little secrets to keep your readers interested and wanting to know what happens, but in this case I feel like it was more than a long time coming. The story of her scar seems like it would naturally be told so many times before it actually is so that I can actually feel the effort that went into not revealing it -this, to me, seems a bit clumsy.

The other issue around the scar and Sage’s apparent self-worth issues is that they just seem to disappear without any real motivation or resolution beyond meeting a new man. Perhaps it is the feminist in me, but I was sort of hoping for a bigger “ah-ha” moment in the story for Sage after reading for pages about how she hid from life than her finding a boyfriend. It seems to me that she wakes up one day and decides she’s okay with everything without ever really dealing with any of her issues head-on.

This book also had a few predictable moments in it in terms of the connections the characters would make, but there is one very good twist that Picoult saves for the very end of the book that brings chills to the spine. It is this chilling twist that actually made me feel the dénouement of the story was not quite what it could have been. This book asks a lot of big questions about forgiveness, about the good and evil in each of us, and about the effect of terrible deeds to not only victims but to perpetrators, and it felt to me that in light of these questions, in light of the amazing part 2 of the book that the ending came a little too soon and a little too ungraciously. I was expecting some enlightenment in the final paragraphs but instead all I felt was a distinct dullness inside.

If, however, Picoult’s intention with her ending was to get people to think about the book long after they’d finished it, she succeeded completely. In this way Picoult shows herself truly an artist for she has created something that requires a response of some kind. It is simply not possible to read this book and not have it sit under your skin and dare you to not think about it.

What I must end with is simply this: that I have only scratched the surface of this book and of Picoult’s dedication to her craft. While I have a few disappointments leading me to give this book a lower rating than my previous reviews, I still say that it is well worth the read.

Mar 14 2013

Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

It is a rare occurrence in today’s quick-fix best-seller fiction, but every so often you stumble upon a book that takes your breath away – a book you know you will read over and over and it will never get stale.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is such a book.

What is surprising about this book is not so much that it that it is written with incredible skill and care, but that it is the debut novel for the author and Brunt seems to have jumped right over first novel territory into a place where she has a mature and beautiful voice: artful use of language, an insight into literature, and an understanding of the way a story should be woven not only in terms of plot but in terms of layers of descriptions, similes, and symbolism.

Brunt’s descriptions of places, people, and memories are not only clever and perceptive, but precise. For example, she is able to describe the essence of the main character, June, with one sentence: “Crocodile was a name Finn invented for me because he said I was like something from another time that lurked around, watching and waiting, before I made my mind up about things.” (Pg. 7)

Brunt doesn’t tend to rely on the tried and true similes but comes up with her own fresh ideas, for example: “Greta’s talk is like a geode. Ugly as anything on the outside and for the most part the same on the inside, but every once in a while there’s something that shines through.” (Pg. 52)

The most apt descriptor for this story would be a love story. And then another love story…and so on. It is about a girl and her uncle, a girl and her sister, a sister and a brother, an artist and his secret lover, a father and a mother, a girl and her forbidden friend; and all these love stories are bound together and revealed by the terrible, and wonderful, things we do for love.

The book begins with June Elbus and her older sister Greta being painted by their Uncle Finn who is dying of AIDS in 1987. The time period itself is a refreshing change in a world where most books are set either further in the past, in the present, or in some yet to be discovered future.

When Uncle Finn does die, June is left with a gaping hole in her life that no one understands. In fact she is often begrudged of her grief because Finn was just an uncle after all. But to June he was much more than an uncle. He was the one person who could read her heart and make her feel special; he was the person June felt she couldn’t live without.

Brunt’s descriptions of June’s grief and the fear that comes with it are so sincere that anyone who has lost a love will feel their heart being embraced by such aching phrases as “Not only because Finn had never told me…but because there was no way to ask him about it. And until then I don’t think I really understood the meaning of gone.” (pg 55) and “I understood how just about anything in the world could remind you of Finn…Things you’d never even seen with Finn could remind you of him, because he was the one person you’d want to show.”

In the shadow of this unbearable grief is a whisper of hope in the form of Finn’s secret boyfriend, Toby, who shows up in June’s life to deliver an old Russian teapot from her uncle. The relationship between these two people who loved Finn deeply, but were never allowed to meet, is at once awkward, sweet, hilarious, and eventually intimate. Even as the pressures of the outside world threaten to tear them apart their bonds grow and together they manage to find a sense of hope.

With so many different relationships making up this story it is little surprise that the climax involves the bringing together of all these stories, but even if you can see it coming it does nothing to curb the mounting suspense as you wait for something, or everything, to break.

Five out of five stars, but only because there is no way to give her six out of five.

As an end note it must be mentioned that Brunt gets an extra nod of admiration from me for referencing A Wrinkle in Time in her book.

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