It’s hard to put into words what moved me so about this book. It certainly wasn’t the subject matter as I have read many books about the Holocaust which have shaken me more, been more vivid, stolen my breath. Likewise, it wasn’t the characters, as I know Picoult’s work and am always captivated by her ability to craft an individual with words and make them leap off the page. It also couldn’t have been the narrative structure for other authors have done far better at the weaving of multiple threads of a narrative and when I think of woven tales I always conjure Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion:
After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters. In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language. Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story. (p.157)
So, I can only think that I fell into Picoult’s book because it was just so easy to do so … Her style is simply put, neat. Everything fits together and there is a logic to her structure that made this book a pleasure to read, despite the subject matter. While at times I found her use of magic realism in the ‘storyteller’ sections of the book somewhat facile and obvious, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book itself.
This is a book about so many things: love, death, life, relationships, humanity, evil, conviction, fear. And all of these themes are explored in the 3 different worlds that the text occupies. Firstly, the world of The Storyteller, a fictional place which unfolds in italics.
“My father trusted me with the details of his death. ‘Ania,’ he would say, ‘ no whiskey at my funeral. I want the finest blackberry wine. No weeping, mind you. Just dancing. And when they lower me into the ground, I want a fanfare of trumpets, and white butterflies.’ A character, that was my father. He was the village baker, and every day, in addition to the loaves he would make for the town, he would create a single roll for me that was as unique as it was delicious: a twist like a princess’s crown, dough mixed with sweet cinnamon and the richest chocolate. The secret ingredient, he said, was his love for me, and this made it taste better than anything else I had ever eaten.”
And then there is the world of the past:
“The ghetto was a ghost town. We were a beaten, gray stream of workers who did not want to remember our past and did not think we had a future. There was no laughter, no hopscotch remaining. No hair ribbons, or giggles. No colour or beauty left behind.”
And finally,the world of the present:
“I don’t believe in God. But sitting here, in a room full of those who feel otherwise, I realise that I do believe in people. In their strength to help each other, and to thrive in spite of the odds. I believe that the extraordinary trumps the ordinary, any day. I believe that having something to hope for – even if it’s just a better tomorrow – is the most powerful drug on this planet.”
In the aftermath of the reading, these three worlds float around in my head, still bumping into each other and trying to find a place to rest. I have no doubt that they will remain there for quite some time to come.