By Jodi Picoult
Atria/Emily Bestler, 462 pages, $32
What do you get when you take a scarred and scared young woman, a repentant murderer, a moralizing former nun, a deceitful undertaker, a sanguine Holocaust survivor and a handsome Nazi hunter and toss them all together? The answer, surprisingly, is a pretty good Jodi Picoult novel.
The Storyteller, like all of the U.S. writer's 20 previous works of popular fiction, tackles a timely and headline-grabbing topic, in this case the determined efforts of real-life Holocaust survivor/Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to bring elderly Nazi war criminals to justice.
Like many of these other novels, this new one employs multiple narrative viewpoints, a couple of morally ambivalent characters, plot twists and turns, ethical conundrums, and fairly equal parts of plausibility and predictability. It also takes shape as a story within a story within a story.
Twenty-five year old Sage Singer is at the heart of the first narrative. A baker by profession, a loner by choice and a Jew by birth only, Sage is grieving her mother's death and her own disfigurement following a mysterious accident.
When she reluctantly befriends an elderly man who frequents the New Hampshire bakery where she works, Sage's self-imposed solitude implodes.
Josef Weber is a former high school teacher and a well-regarded and well-liked community member. He is also, he confides to Sage, a former officer in the Nazi death head unit at Auschwitz who hopes that his new friend will help him atone for his past.
Unsure what to do, Sage takes this information to Leo Stein, a Department of Justice Nazi hunter. Together they then turn for assistance to Sage's grandmother Minka, a death camp survivor who, until that point, has never shared her life story with anyone, including her granddaughter.
Under Leo's gentle urging Minka finally does so, discovering in the process "that sharing a memory with someone is different from reliving it when you're alone. It feels less like a wound, more like a poultice."
It is at this juncture in the novel, as Minka recounts her wartime experiences, that Picoult's conventional and formulaic narrative abruptly takes a turn for the better.
Although simplistic at intervals, Minka's account of life and death in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, is carefully wrought and spellbinding in many of its details.
As her freedom, family, friends and innocence are wrenched from her, Minka manages to cling to a childhood journal in which she has written a fable about good and evil. It is this fable that connects her to Weber and ultimately keeps her alive.
As in Tatiana de Rosnay's bestselling novel Sarah's Key, the depiction of past horrors in this novel is considerably more engaging and interesting than the parts of the novel that are set in the present day.
While Minka tells her story, Sage and Leo and their friends and associates fade into the background, and their problems, worries and idiosyncrasies become unwelcome distractions to the reader.
The only story that matters is the one that Minka tells and the one that Josef regrets.
But does remorse that comes 60 years after the fact mean anything? The fictional Leo Stein doesn't think so. Nor does the real life Simon Wiesenthal.
Winnipeg writer Sharon Chisvin is the author of The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter.