Jodi Picoult’s controversial new courtroom drama elicits an explosive gamut of emotions, tackling issues of racism, revenge, loss and acceptance. It is powerfully written from three sides, and brought to life in the expert hands of a multi-cast audiobook that makes us empathise, hate and understand each of the main players.
Audra Ann McDonald stars as Ruth Jefferson, an African-American labour and delivery nurse with decades of experience. When a white supremacist couple give birth in the hospital, they demand that no one of colour touch or care for their baby. The hospital obliges but, during an emergency, Ruth is left with the infant who dies in her care.
Ruth is damned either way: if she confesses to trying to revive the baby, she’s admitting to going against the hospital’s instructions and the couple’s rights. If she keeps silent about trying to help the child, she’s negligent in her duty of care. The couple sues Ruth for murder, providing a platform for Picoult to expose the subtlest of ways that discrimination occurs even within the same minority community.
Picoult is renowned for tackling contemporary social issues and, while she is explicitly targeting America’s racism against its coloured population, it’s a plague that can be transposed to any western country across the globe and the inbred racism that has surfaced with the rise of extreme right-winged politics.
In the author’s notes at the end of Small Great Things, Picoult discusses the extensive research she did for the novel. Her attention to detail shows in her ability to blur the lines when shaping our opinions of the characters. This is most notable in the character of white supremacist, Turk Bauer, read with conviction by Ari Fliakos. Through the course of the novel, we get to know Turk not just as a dangerous thug, but as a loving husband and father. He is a man who is the sum of his past and, regardless of what we think of his ethics, he is also a man capable of great love and compassion.
Between the extremes of Ruth and Turk, we also meet Kennedy McQuarrie, a privileged white public defender who provides the middle ground and exposes the inherent racism of the American judicial system. Read by Cassandra Campbell, the part of Kennedy is pivotal not just for her legal guidance, but for the personal journey she takes, which is perhaps the greatest of all three after experiencing both sides of Picoult’s barbed wire fence.
The title of the book is a reference to Martin Luther King’s infamous quote, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” This motto stands for all three of the main characters in vastly different ways but which will ultimately change the course of their lives. Listening to this exceptional audiobook may do the same for the listener, promoting awareness of the subtle, unconscious ways we treat people differently.
Small Great Things is gripping, heartbreaking, thought-provoking and perhaps Picoult’s most daring novel to date. It may not bring Christmas cheer, but it will certainly open our eyes to the way we think and behave. It can be a difficult listen because of the challenging themes, but the rewards are great and, like any good novel, it’s as entertaining as it is uncomfortably real. The multi-cast audiobook is distributed by Bolinda Audio and runs for approximately 16 hours and 13 minutes. It’s not often a fictional work changes lives, but this latest work by Picoult may just change attitudes.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 9
Released by: Bolinda Audio
Release date: November 2016