All sides over­ex­plored in a com­plex hostage cri­sis

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - JANE CASEY

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID LEVENSON /GETTY IM­AGES

Jodi Picoult: Un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ten­ta­tive.

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