Hazel McHaffie

A Spark of Light: Jodi Picoult

Among the stacks of files for possible novels-I-might-write-some-day is one labelled ABORTION – a hot potato and one with evolving ethical and legal and philosophical issues.

I’ve personally lived through major change as a clinician in this area of practice. When I was in my early twenties, deliberately terminating pregnancy was illegal, and we midwives saw at first hand the damage done by so-called backstreet procedures carried out by unskilled hands. Then in 1967 the law changed to allow abortions to be carried out by trained professionals in certain circumstances. And gradually, over the years, those strict criteria have been relaxed. Nowadays, social circumstances and personal preference can be used as reasons to proceed; the mother’s mental well-being is invoked. But somehow a novel on the subject has slipped farther and farther down my priority list.

It remains a much more controversial issue in the States. Girls/women procuring an abortion have been incarcerated in prison for murder/homicide; professionals have been killed by ardent pro-lifers; centers offering the procedure have been attacked. (Jodi Picoult lists some of the sobering statistics in an appendix to her book on the subject.)

So perhaps it’s better that an American author has picked up the gauntlet and run with it. And I’d have said, Jodi Picoult was a natural choice to do so. She’s one of the four authors closest to my own genre of writing, and I’ve read (and own) pretty much all her books.

In A Spark of Light – just published – she’s tackled many of the issues I planned to include. The scene is The Center – formerly The Centre for Women’s Reproductive Health – the last standing abortion clinic – in Mississipi. The building is a hideous orange scar on the cityscape, everything inside it is run down, shabby, used. It’s protected by a perimeter fence, a border patrolled by zealous vigilantes /activists demonstrating outside it and against it.

Into this centre of controversy strides a very angry man with a gun and a personal agenda. He cold-bloodedly shoots some of the women and a male doctor before taking others hostage. His murderous rampage is fuelled by rage, because it’s in this place that the life of his own potential grandchild was taken; all he can think of is exacting revenge on those who were responsible.

Police negotiator Hugh McElroy is drafted in, initially unaware that his own teenage daughter and his sister are inside The Center. The two men establish contact. When he discovers that Bex (his sister) has been shot and seriously wounded, and that his girl Wren is being held hostage, it all becomes horribly personal.

The story unravels backwards in hourly increments. Hmmmm.

Picoult explores profound questions. Just where does the right to life end and the right to choose take over? When does killing for a cause (war, unwanted pregnancy) become murder? How can black and white legislation deal with the multiplicity of greyness that is people’s lives and experiences and beliefs? So far, so appropriate.

But sad to say this book did little for me. Sorry, Jodi.
Stylistically it simply doesn’t work. It starts with the shooting and unravels back to the reason each person is in that building at that time. Had I cared about any of the characters I’d have been interested in their backstory; but they were either too unbelievable or two-dimensional. As it was, with each chapter giving snippets about each one, I struggled to hold their identities in my head.
I was more concerned with how far the shooter would go, but then, blow me, after all that effort to follow the threads, the ending falls very flat. Promising story lines are left in limbo.
The agenda glares through the narrative, both visible and contrived.
The cod psychology is both intrusive and pervasive.
Everyone philosophizes and juggles competing ideals and thoughts and wise reflections, makes profound statements, encapsulates deep existential ideas in succinct phrases – completely unbelievable … especially in a crisis like this!
So disappointing.

So why do I offer such a negative review? Because the experience reminds me of the burden on authors – myself included. My own next book has the potential to disappoint my readership. I’ve strayed outside my comfort zone with this story and just this week one of my critics has pointed out many flaws – even questioned the appropriateness of the genre!  It’s on hold at the moment, but in the new year I’m going to have to forensically dissect it and try to up my game.

Oh, and I dare to criticise Picoult on two counts. I’ve given her plenty of positive publicity in the past. And she’s rich and famous and confident enough not to be derailed by my humble opinion!!

 

, , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.