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book review

Jodi PicoultDavid Levenson/The Associated Press

Jodi Picoult has written many books, 19, by my count, making The Storyteller No. 20. Although her books might, at times, seem formulaic, they usually deal with controversial and complicated big issues – school shootings in 19 Minutes, an autistic boy accused of murder in House Rules, a child conceived to be her sister's organ-donor in My Sister's Keeper. Picoult's style rarely wavers: straight-shooting, fast-paced sentences, plenty of arcs and climaxes, and quick, witty dialogue that refuses to skirt the issues. Picoult never shies away from controversy, and if only for this reason, I find her work compelling.

In The Storyteller, Picoult looks at the huge, raw wound the Holocaust left behind. She looks at how and why and if we should forgive the mass murderers.

And, although there is a love story or two in The Storyteller, the novel is weightier than the usual popular mainstream book. The love connections are not the point of the plot. Instead, Picoult focuses on the philosophical questions raised and the differing points of view she presents. From small-town America and back to Auschwitz, she questions our ability to forgive. She stares hard at guilt. She examines survivors and victims and murderers. This is a relentlessly challenging book, with an emotional impact like a punch to the gut. The Storyteller, I think, may be Picoult's best and most complicated work.

The Storyteller begins with a fairy tale – the Grimm kind, with blood and gore – about a vampire-like beast called the "upior," who terrorizes a baker and his little girl, and the entire town. The fairy tale weaves in an out of what is happening in the present to Sage Singer, a young American baker, as she works through the pain of losing her mother and father. In the grief therapy sessions she attends, Sage meets Josef Weber, a kindly old German man. Their relationship is fraught from the start as we discover that Josef was an SS Nazi guard at Auschwitz. He confesses to Sage and, surprisingly, begs her to kill him. Sage tells a friend: "He thinks that if I kill him, biblical justice will be served and a karmic debt will be erased, a Jew taking the life of the man who took the life of other Jews." Of course, the plot is more complicated than this makes it sound, but I don't want to give too much away.

Sage is shocked, and goes to the authorities. Leo Stein, a U.S. Department of Justice agent who investigates and is sometimes able to convict now-elderly Nazis, becomes Sage's love interest as well as a Nazi-hunter. There are philosophical discussions between Sage and Josef on the nature of guilt, on forgiveness, on murder, on revenge. Leo tells Sage: "I'd like to think that maybe the next person who is about to do something horrific – the soldier who is given an order to commit a crime against humanity – will remember that press release about the Nazi who was caught, even at age ninety-five … [and know that someone] will hunt him down for the rest of his life, too, no matter how far he runs."

Part II is Minka's story. Minka, Sage's grandmother, is a Holocaust survivor. Over more than 150 pages, Picoult shows us the life of a young Jewish girl growing up happily in Poland, then being sent to the ghettos and, eventually, forced onto a train to Auschwitz. It is heart-breaking, and even the blood-thirsty upior in the fairy tale pales beside the horror of it.

Picoult does not flinch from describing the Holocaust. Dashes of colour – blood red, wedding white – stand out against the grey: "That day as we passed, a new group of prisoners was being belched out of one of the cars. They stood like we had on the platform, carrying their belongings, yelling out the names of loved ones. Suddenly, we saw her. She was dressed from head to toe in white silk. On her head, a veil streamed out behind her in the cold wind. … The rest of us women all stopped, riveted by this sight … a bride, ripped from her own wedding, separated from her groom, and put on a transport to Auschwitz."

Picoult presents Minka's story starkly and vividly. This section of the novel heightens the complicated themes Picoult raises, and reinforces the point that life is not black and white, that there are no easy answers. In the long run, the questions of guilt and forgiveness Picoult raises are too complicated for Sage to answer. But the fact that Picoult attempts to face them head-on, and to get her readers to contemplate them, is admirable.

Michelle Berry has published seven books. Her backlist will be available in print and e-book this May.