THE STORYTELLER, by Jodi Picoult. Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 460 pp., $28.99.
Sage Singer, the protagonist of Jodi Picoult's ambitious 20th novel, "The Storyteller," is a physically and emotionally scarred young woman working as a baker in a small New Hampshire town. She avoids human contact, interacting only with the wise former nun who owns the bakery and a married undertaker with whom she is having an affair.
Her quiet existence is shaken, though, when she befriends Josef Weber, an elderly German who frequents the bakery. A beloved former teacher and pillar of the community, Josef confesses to a shocking Nazi past, asking for both Sage's forgiveness and her assistance in ending his life. Josef and Sage are kindred spirits of a sort, and he is eager to unburden himself, imploring: "You showed me your scars. I only ask you to let me show you mine." Though Sage is an atheist who has never considered herself Jewish, Josef has chosen her because of her Jewish ancestry, rare in their New England town.
Initially unwilling to grant his request, Sage embarks on a mission to bring Josef to justice. Her quest brings her into contact with Leo Stein, a Department of Justice attorney dedicated to prosecuting war criminals. Despite the numbers tattooed on her grandmother Minka's arm, Sage has never before questioned her grandmother about her wartime past. Together, Leo and Sage coax Minka's story from her, believing she might hold the key to incriminating details that corroborate Josef's story.
"The Storyteller" alternates Sage and Josef's present-day encounter with Minka's history and with Josef's account of his wartime descent into inhumanity. Minka had been an aspiring writer before the war, and a horror story she composed in her youth is interwoven here. That story, featuring an "upiór,'' a vampire figure of Polish legend, contains echoes of the other story lines. Minka becomes a real-life Scheherazade when her gift for storytelling saves her life at Auschwitz, where her tale takes on different meanings to different people.
"The Storyteller" is a carefully constructed, multilayered novel about the transformative power of storytelling. As in many Jodi Picoult novels, the plot veers toward the formulaic, with developments that strain credulity, and overreliance on an unexpected twist. Minka's story is the most compelling portion of the book, providing a fully imagined account of a young woman's experiences during the Holocaust. Picoult fans, who are legion, will forgive some heavy-handed exposition and the author's eagerness to showcase her extensive historical research.