Jodi Picoult tackles abortion-clinic shooting
The timing of Jodi Picoult’s new novel is downright eerie. With Roe v. Wade potentially in the cross hairs (and Washington having been roiled by Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings), the best-selling writer has taken on abortion as her latest hot-button topic.
“A Spark of Light” (Ballantine, 364 pp., ★★g☆) is about a deadly shooting and hostage-taking at the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, a state with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
Picoult has never shied away from controversial topics in her fiction, from school shootings to the Holocaust to gay rights.
She flies her liberal flag proudly.
But this is by far her most blatantly political novel, and while she tries to get inside the heads of her characters to explore both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life debate, it’s obvious where her sympathies lie. (She spells them out in an afterword, in which she lays out her concerns about the threats to abortion rights while noting that she interviewed pro-life advocates as well as 151 women who have terminated pregnancies.)
It’s an uncomfortable topic no matter your beliefs, and “A Spark of Light” is an uncomfortable, disturbing read, which may be Picoult’s intent. It’s hard to say: That’s a central problem with a novel like this, which alternately keeps you riveted and repelled. A breathless thriller about an abortion clinic shooting? The intention, depending on your politics, may be admirable. The execution made me somewhat queasy.
There are things Picoult does very well in “A Spark of Light,” once you get past a disorienting start and a structure that builds suspense in reverse chronological order. As the novel opens it’s 5 p.m., and each new section takes us back in time an hour. It’s going to drive some readers crazy and at times seems unnecessarily gimmicky and confusing.
Her strength is her characters. There are two parallel stories: between George Goddard, the extraordinarily angry, religious man who has shot up the Center for Women and Reproductive Health in Jackson, Mississippi, and who is the single father of a teenage girl; and Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator who’s trying to get George to stand down. Hugh also is (too patly) the single father of a teenage daughter, the wily Wren, and she’s inside the clinic being held hostage. It takes us a while to find out why she’s there.
Some victims already are dead in the bloody aftermath of George’s initial assault and others are alive as we learn their back stories. One, Janine, is an antiabortion activist who is inside the clinic to spy. Then there’s the hero of the tale, Dr. Ward, an African-American physician who performs abortions – knowing the potential danger to himself – and travels among clinics.
He picked the wrong day to be in Jackson. He’s on the floor with a gaping bullet wound to the thigh, but still manages to engage in improbably well-articulated, paragraph-long explanations of why he does what he does for women (often poor and desperate) in need.
Polemic or page-turner? Picoult wants to have it both ways, with mixed results. But give her points for daring to take on a volatile topic and trying to humanize it.