Jodi Picoult is probably known best for some of her early work and I too was an early adopter, reading anything and everything she wrote in the early 2000s.
I drifted away for a while, but was impressed with her 2016 novel Small Great Things which centred around race and the related notions of privilege and guilt.
Her latest, A Spark of Light is set in a women’s centre, one of a few remaining clinics in Mississipi to offer a range of reproductive choices to women, including terminations.
A Spark of Light
by Jodi Picoult
Published by Allen & Unwin
on October 3rd 2018
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Women's Fiction, General Fiction
When Vonita opened the doors of the Center that morning, she had no idea that it would be for the last time.
Wren has missed school to come to the Center, the sole surviving women's reproductive health clinic in the state, chaperoned by her aunt, Bex. Olive told Peg she was just coming for a check-up. Janine is undercover, a pro-life protester disguised as a patient. Joy needs to terminate her pregnancy. Louie is there to perform a service for these women, not in spite of his faith, but because of it.
When a desperate and distraught gunman bursts into the Center, opening fire and taking everyone hostage, Hugh McElroy is the police negotiator called to the scene. He has no idea that his fifteen-year-old daughter is inside.
I don’t think there’s any question about where Picoult falls on the issue of a woman’s right to choose but she does an amazing job at bringing us all sides of this story.
We’re in the heads of several of those impacted by the hostage situation, including the gunman (George) and Janine, another right to life campaigner.
There’s an obvious sense of irony. We eventually learn the gunman himself is there because of a mistaken motivation and most of those impacted by his actions actually aren’t necessarily those he’d choose to target. It reminds us of the futility of one’s actions sometimes and – though I usually like people to be confronted by their fuck-ups – I liked that Picoult doesn’t offer all of our characters that this time around.
The novel is written in reverse – Memento style, so we start with the final events of the day. It works really well here because in reality, some of the worst stuff has happened by the time we join George, Hugh and Wren… and those still standing at the end. (Well, near the end.)
Picoult then leaps back hour by hour in each section so we’re taken through the events of the day that ultimately land us to where we started. It means this novel isn’t predictable, which is what had worried me when I’d read the blurb – it felt like we were privy to the twist (ie. the cop’s daughter being there) when in reality, when the book opens George already knows this.
In addition to the futility of George’s actions (his misguided motivation and ‘inappropriateness’ of his targets) Picoult again touches on the issue of race. We learn, for example, the clinic’s doctor (Louie) has dealt with women who refused his treatment because he’s black and his response is an interesting reflection on the outcomes of the earlier book I mentioned (above).
He paid attention to the race of those who came to the Centre because for him, the politics of abortion had so much in common with the politics of racism. As an African American male, he could imagine quite easily what it was like to not have jurisdiction over your body. White men had once owned Black men’s bodies. Now white men wanted to own women’s bodies. p 324
Religion also comes into play, with Janine (who’s there ‘undercover’ in an attempt to acquire information about the clinic’s inappropriate practices) pondering how different religions’ define the commencement of life and (at least) recognises the subjectivity of this… the fact that religion means different things to different people.
When you say you can’t do something because your religion forbids it, that’s a good thing. When you say I can’t do something because your religion forbids it, that’s a problem. p 345
And of course this book is about a woman’s right to choose. As someone who is pro-choice I think Picoult handles all sides of the debate well. One of the things I really liked is that she reminds us that even if a woman has ‘successfully’ had a termination (ie. getting what she’d ‘wanted’ and I realise that sounds glib and I don’t mean to be) that she can also feel a sense of loss. We’re reminded they’re not mutually exclusive.
Picoult’s done her research and there’s a lot of reference (reflected in a parallel but related story unfolding – or folding… cos it’s also in reverse?!) to court cases and US legislation. I suspect some will find her thoughts (well, through her characters) kind of cynical but I think she nails it.
Louie believed that those white men with their signs and slogans were not really there for the unborn, but there for the women who carried them. They couldn’t control women’s sexual independence. To them, this was the next best thing. p 58
Picoult also includes medical information in relation to terminations and options. It gets a little dense and overwhelming at times, but ultimately boils down to the women who walk through the doors of the centre – the decisions they’ve had to make and the fall-out… this from Louie:
He imagined what it felt like to them – to have made a decision that came at a colossal emotional and financial cost – and then to have that decision called into question. Not to mention the implication that they were not capable of managing their own healthcare. p 58
I should mention I cried several times throughout this novel.
The subject matter itself is obviously sensitive, but Picoult gives us characters – from Wren, her father and her aunt; to women who’ve succumbed to the false promises of lovers; to those who are motivated by events of their younger years; and those who live with regret – who are complex… well rounded and whom we come to care about. A lot.
She opened her mouth to say their names, but found her throat was filled with the words of Leonardo da Vinci. While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die. p 215
Picoult has that talent of taking a fraught topic and humanising it through relatable and loveable characters and injecting more shades of grey than a Pantone colour chart. I suspect some will find this book and its subject matter controversial or uncomfortable, but it’s an important conversation and made palatable by Picoult’s delicate and deft touch.
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.