Reviewed by Angela Marie
‘Joy shook her head. ” Do you think I wanted this? Do you think anyone wakes up and says, I think I’ll get an abortion this morning? This is the last stop. This is the place you go when you run through all the scenarios…But that doesn’t mean I won’t think about it every day of my life.” (141)’
A Spark of Light draws us into a dark and desperate place – the sole remaining Women’s Health Centre in Mississippi whose workers, clients and visitors are being held at gunpoint by an angry man. Angry that his daughter, Lil, has terminated her pregnancy. Angry that this could happen. Angry with the world. And determined to change the status quo. Around him people are dead. Around him people are bleeding and frightened but hanging onto the thread of courage.
Outside, flanked by the SWAT team, is Hugh McElroy, the police negotiator. The stakes have been raised and George, the shooter, knows this. McElroy’s teenage daughter, Wren, is inside. Why did she go there? What could she not tell him? Knowledge withheld to protect the people you love.
When the roulette wheel of life was spun, what brought everyone to that fated spot on that fated day? Is Izzy, in her nurse’s uniform, a worker at the centre? Why is gentle, middle-aged Olive now lying dead? Clinic owner Vonita also. Joy has come to terminate. Janine undercover for pro-life. Will they find a middle ground? Doctor Louie performing abortions from a perspective of faith. Aunt Bex there to support Wren. And George, battle weary in more ways than one.
Jodie Picoult has used reverse chronology to tell A Spark of Light. On reading the first chapter we know the casualties and the losses. We know the outcome for all hostages except Wren. Then we begin an hour-by-hour count back, time spinning backwards, until George, weapon concealed, enters the clinic through a breach of protocol. The tale will have to play out before we will know if Wren will be safe or not. Along the way our understanding of needs and motives is deepened as we connect with everyone’s younger selves, hear their secrets and their shames.
Reverse chronology, though not commonly used, gives a slow reveal of the characters’ innermost complexities and as a device generates a different type of perspective, enhancing our attention to detail and connection.
As she delves deeper into the individual back-stories, Jodie Picoult stirs the pot and tangles lives in an unforeseen way. Who would guess the complex interrelationships the reader becomes privy to? And this is life; full of flawed, broken people, hopeful and naive people, positive and loving people, and the scarred and reclusive. Not inherently good or evil but moulded by generations of experience, race and gender. Are we the people that others think we are?
Everyone has a back-story and a reason for being there and may pay with their life. Every one of the hostages has had to walk the line past pro-lifers intent on changing decisions. They all thought that would be the toughest part of their day.
Are the minor players minor after all? Where does teenage Beth, handcuffed to a hospital bed and under police guard, fit in? And the judge, effectively delaying legal abortion by taking a vacation with his wife. Deliberate or not? Part of a political machine in the land of the free.
At its core A Spark of Light is a battle zone. Battles between the rights of women and the rights of the unborn. Battles between conscience and necessity. Battles between the state and the individual. The paradox of committing violence in the name of love.
Jodie Picoult does not unduly influence the reader. She is telling an age-old story from varied perspectives. A story which, in all likelihood, will not go away, but be manipulated by the forever-shifting legislative goalposts. And a compelling and powerful read.
This reviewer is in awe of Jodie Picoult’s work and work ethic. I would encourage the reader to take a breather after finishing A Spark of Light, but to remember to read the author’s note and also the acknowledgements at a later point. These will illustrate both the homage Jodie Picoult has paid to those she interviewed from the opposing sides of the abortion issue and the extent to which she commits herself in research. Of particular interest was the rebuttal of legislation as a panacea for society’s ills and the recognition of financial standing as a contributing factor. As she writes, ” Laws are black and white. The lives of women are a thousand shades of gray.”
Recently I was asked what I was currently reading. When I said that it was the latest Jodie Picoult novel, my friend assumed that this was romantic fiction. Far from it. Jodie Picoult tackles society’s ethical dilemmas and delivers a good read at the same time. The subject might be race and white supremacists, end-of-life decisions, organ donation from the living, paedophilia or access to frozen embryos to cite a few. All are well researched, and predicting the ending is challenging.
Jodie Picoult demonstrates outstanding commitment to her craft, graduating in creative writing at Princeton and later a master’s degree in education from Harvard. Among her varied roles she has edited textbooks, taught eighth grade English and been the writer for D C Comics’ Wonder Woman. Nineteen Minutes, published in 2007, was her first book to debut at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, a feat that has been replicated.
Jodie Picoult advocates for those whose voices are marginalised, having associations with Vida: Women in Literary Arts, Positive Tracks and the New Hampshire Coalition Against the Death Penalty, among others, and was a speaker in support of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. She and her family live in New Hampshire.
Her books have been translated into 34 languages and sales estimates exceed 14 million. She has garnered many literary awards, including Waterstone’s Author of the Year, and has been named as Our Most Influential Alumni by Princeton University.
By Jodi Picoult
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76011 051 2 (pb)
ISBN 978 1 76011 052 9 (hb)