Jodi Pi­coult tack­les abor­tion-clinic shoot­ing

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Jo­ce­lyn McClurg Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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.

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