Jodi Picoult on the Shoah

By Jennifer Lipman, April 4, 2013
Questions: Jodi Picoult (Photo: AP)

Questions: Jodi Picoult (Photo: AP)

It was perhaps inevitable that the reigning queen of moral-dilemma fiction would one day turn her attention to the Holocaust.

In her career so far — 20 novels and counting — American writer Jodi Picoult has delved into witchcraft, gun crime, suicide pacts and teenage cancer, not to mention the Amish and Native American communities.

Her latest offering, The Storyteller, (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) adheres to the by-now familiar structure — the action flits between past and present with each chapter narrated by a different character. The themes — love and loyalty, and the dilemmas these raise — are likewise Picoult staples.

That said, it is a departure from formula in that there is no court case at its centre, or at least not a formal one. Instead, we have Sage, a damaged young woman who lives her life in the shadows and finds solace in little other than baking and a damaging affair with a married man.

Her grandmother — one of the few relatives with whom she is in contact — is a Holocaust survivor; Sage herself has little connection with her Jewish heritage. Into the equation comes an elderly widower, who may or may not be concealing a Nazi past, and a Jewish Nazi-hunter with personal problems of his own. Woven into the contemporary tale is a fable — or is it more? — about a young woman living in a fairy-tale European village as tragedy strikes.

For anyone familiar with Holocaust history, some passages can be trying — for example, where Picoult mentions the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and proceeds to give a museum-exhibit-like summary of his notorious deeds. Her rigour is admirable but a genuine eye-witness account, of which we have many, is always likely to be more powerful than a fictional one.

Yet she will undoubtedly introduce some readers to much of this history. And, by making the story about the modern implications of the Holocaust and raising the questions associated with tracking former Nazis seven decades on, Picoult does more than merely write a fictional survivor’s testimony. You will be gripped whether or not you want to be.

Last updated: 2:48pm, April 4 2013