You get to read lots of books when you do reviews, some better than others. The Storyteller is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time.
Sage is an almost reclusive young woman working in a community bakery and attending a bereavement group to help her come to terms with the death of her mother. It is at this group that she meets and somehow befriends the old man, Josef, a long standing and deeply respected member of the community who is struggling to cope with his wife’s death. When Josef tells Sage that he is sick of living and asks her to help him to take his own life she is aghast, until he confesses that he was a Nazi and wants her forgiveness before he dies.
This is difficult for Sage, whose own grandmother Minka is a holocaust survivor, but she endeavours to do the right thing by reporting him to the police and hoping she does not have to have any further involvement with him. Enter Leo from the office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions who is sent in to complete the investigation. Leo is tired of working on cases that rarely result in a prosecution because so much time has elapsed and there are so few witnesses left willing to testify. He persuades Sage to get Josef to relate as much of his story as possible to her so that they can be sure that Josef is who he says he is, and they can be confident of a successful prosecution. It is while Josef is relating his story to her that Sage realises Josef was one of the soldiers holding Minka captive.
The book has a smart five way narrative giving accounts from Sage, Josef, Minka and Dave as well as a story Minka wrote while she was in captivity which, like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, saved her life. This multi- structured narrative allows an exploration of what life was like for the perpetrators of violence as well as the victims and whilst it does not seek to excuse the Nazi behaviour, it does go some way to explaining how ordinary people turned into mass murderers and how some Jews acted against their community and in their own interests for the sake of making money. Somehow the writing does not seek to excuse, only to explain and offer some form of understanding. Both Josef’s and Minka’s accounts make harrowing and disturbing reading that reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. Although the violence within the pages is never gratuitous it is often all the more poignant because it is so deeply rooted in reality.
The characters in this novel are all strong and believable with very distinctive voices, even the ones within Minka’s story, and all the characters are given time to develop, rather like the delicious sour dough breads Sage crafts in her bakery each day. As the working relationship between Sage and Leo grows, Sage’s character develops particularly well and even though she does not always act wisely or kindly she is always extremely likeable. This is one of those books that completely and utterly engrosses you and holds you spellbound from the first word to the last.