All sides overexplored in a complex hostage crisis
A SPARK OF LIGHT JODI PICOULT Hodder & Stoughton, 368pp, £16.99
International success as a writer comes with a burden. Readers want the same thing over and over again, and for it to feel new every time. Spark of Light, the latest novel by bestseller Jodi Picoult, ticks many of the usual boxes. A typical Picoult novel – there are 23 of them – focuses on a headline-grabbing issue, such as school shootings or teen suicide pacts. The characters represent different angles on the issue. Picoult brings out their humanity, coaxing us out of our prejudices and preconceptions. It’s a winning formula, but to Picoult’s credit she seeks to tell her stories in innovative ways. She also tackles topics that many writers would actively avoid.
A Spark of Light begins in the aftermath of a shooting in a women’s health clinic in Mississippi, in the middle of a hostage situation, with a police negotiator bargaining for the safe release of, among others, his teenage daughter. The low, squat clinic “like an old bulldog used to guarding its territory” is the single location in the state where women can access legal abortions. (This, like many other details, is actually true to life.) Each chapter brings us back an hour in time, from 5pm to 8am, slowly revealing the choices and heartbreak that brought the shooter and his victims together.
The characters vary from appealing (teenager
AWren, her intensely creative artist aunt Bex, pregnant nurse Izzy) to awful (the shooter, a violent former soldier). Picoult allows us to eavesdrop on their memories and struggles. People do the wrong thing for what they believe to be the right reasons. The author’s sincere empathy for her characters blurs how we are supposed to feel. Is the gunman’s behaviour understandable? Might we do the same in his place? Well, no, to be frank. Perhaps there’s an unbridgeable cultural gulf between the US and the rest of the world here, but a man shooting unarmed women surely forfeits any claim on our understanding from page one. Justifying his violence – even explaining it – feels dubious. I’m sure Picoult is horrified by such attacks. In seeking to humanise him, though – to make him echo the hero, a single father doing his best – she can’t help but seem to offer excuses for him.
Abortion is a controversial, unwieldy topic. In the US the intersection of politics, the law, evangelical Christianity and race complicates the picture. The characters struggle in a sea of exhaustive background information. There is an interesting contrast here: as one character reflects, “this was indeed some crazy world, where the waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun”.
Picoult is scrupulously fair in representing different opinions, from protesters to the doctor who carries out the terminations to those who need them. In the acknowledgments, she thanks 151 women who shared their stories with her. It feels, at times, as if she’s determined to share each and every one with us.
The reverse narrative is an interesting approach but for it to work, the story needs revelations that make us reconsider our understanding of what we’ve read. Picoult includes a couple of highly accomplished last-minute twists that deepen the emotional impact of the book. To get there, we must persevere through a lot of repetition and deflated tension. When we know what happens, the how and why of it need to be utterly compelling, and consistently so.
The plotting can be strained: an abortion doctor, paranoid about his safety, sits down with an abusive protester on a whim to share coffee and exchange views. It’s ideal for exploring the argument, but doesn’t feel realistic. Nor does it advance the plot. The novel becomes nothing more than an illustration of the issues. And to what end? As one character muses: “We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our own opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”
Picoult often writes very beautifully and has a matchless talent for hitting emotional notes. Here, though, she seems oddly off-balance. In one scene, a surgical abortion is described in unflinching detail, including a grotesquely misplaced joke about bikini waxes. It has the jarring weirdness of reality, but the author’s job is to assimilate research into fiction seamlessly, not unquestioningly.
We look to fiction to make sense of the world, to enlighten and entertain and move us. Jodi Picoult usually does just that, and will again. Ultimately, however, A Spark of Light is tentative in tackling this most complex of issues.
Jodi Picoult: Uncharacteristically tentative.