Even as a self-confessed Picoult devotee, I found myself approaching this particular novel with a degree of unease, anxious that a work of complete fiction could never do justice to the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust. Described by The Observer as a novel that is “impossible to put down”, I quickly found myself feeling the same way about it: the fact that the characters are fictitious in no way demeans the complex moral conundrum at the novel’s epicentre.
At the heart of the book – in true Picoult fashion – is a tangled web of truth and deceit, of justice and mercy. Sage Singer is reclusive – and does all that she can to avoid being noticed, by working through the night as a baker. Josef Weber, on the other hand, is known and liked by the entire community, as the respected former high school teacher and sports coach. Until, that is, he discloses his terrible secret to Sage and requests something from her which is not hers to give . . .
Realising that Josef’s confession is not something she should keep to herself, Sage confides in Leo, who works for the Department of Justice and whose job it is to hunt down Nazis who have thus far evaded capture. What follows is a complicated trail of clues, which must be pieced together to uncover the truth behind Josef’s claim that he is a former Nazi SS guard. Sage finds herself torn between contemplating Josef’s loaded request and feeling that she is not the right person to offer him forgiveness.
Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is a Holocaust survivor, who for the past fifty years has suppressed her traumatic memories of Nazi-occupied Poland, and the torture of the concentration camps. However, when Leo reveals that a testimony is needed, Minka must relive her past in order to find closure. From her experience of the Łódź ghetto and the loss of her family, to her ordeal at the merciless hands of the SS, Minka reveals the ghosts of her past which continue to haunt her. Picoult’s description of the Łódź ghetto immediately transports the reader there, to live Minka’s heartbreak for themselves and when she is transported first to Auschwitz, and consequently to other concentration camps, the emotional connection between the reader and Minka grows ever stronger.
Picoult’s narrative leads the reader to contemplate whether someone who has partaken in truly horrific acts against mankind can ever be redeemed, and if they can be, how can this be done since their victims are already dead? Is Josef right to ask Sage to help him die, when it is not her who suffered under the brutal regime that he was a part of?
Throughout the book, excerpts of a story, written by Minka before, during and after her time in the concentration camps, provide an allegory for Sage’s present-day dilemma: can killing ever be an act of mercy? Ultimately, Sage must decide whether or not to honour Josef’s plea – but if she fulfils it, she may lose herself in the process.