It stood to reason that both life and death began with a spark of light.
Jodi Picoult’s books often start with a few pretty notes like the start of a symphony, adding more sounds until it becomes uncomfortably discordant, then more again, making it so uncomfortable it hurts; so loud you can’t put it down. The next thing you know, it’s 3am and you’ve finished the book but feel like you’ve been sucker-punched into sensory overload. Her books have covered topics such as school shootings, racism, disability, and terminal illness, to name a few, and all have shown every shade of grey but never black and white.
Her newest book starts differently – straight away, it is like an instant punch in the face. Straight away, it is uncomfortable and gritty but, as hard as it is to read, there is no way it was going unfinished. A Spark of Light looks at abortion in America, pro-choice vs anti-choice, but through the narrative of a hostage situation at an abortion clinic.
The story is not told in a linear fashion but is told backwards from the moment of the siege, as well as from the many different viewpoints. Each chapter is named with the time of day when it occurs. None of us, when recalling a traumatic event, can recall it in precision from minute to minute. Rather, there is an array of stories that link together through our re-telling and with the filter of our own emotion and opinion.
All of Picoult’s characters, be they pro or anti-choice, are neither heroes nor villains but human, even at their very worst. Hugh, the police responder and negotiator at the siege, is a single father who is trying his best to bring up his teenage daughter, Wren, while also struggling with being forty. Wren describes him in the most glowing terms, yet she can’t bring herself to talk to him about birth control. Then there is Janine, one of the hostages who is an actively anti-abortion activist but unwilling to look inside herself at her own shades of grey… and all of this occurs in the midst of a siege.
The Author’s Note at the end of the novel is also fascinating. It explains some of the context of the novel, the statistics of violent incidents at abortion clinics, as well as the legislation around it in America. Picoult also explains how she researched this story and some of the issues with which she has personally grappled. Laws are black and white. The lives of women are a thousand shades of gray.
This is Picoult’s 25th novel and I am utterly in awe of someone who could write so many books that are all raw and uncomfortable, looking at the horrible aspects of humanity whilst also showing us the absolute humanity that lies beneath the surface of her most appalling characters. It must help to have a real life far away from her novels including a menagerie at her home in New Hampshire – dogs, donkeys, geese, chicken, ducks and even a cow!
Don’t be put off by her choice of topics or the description of how gut-wrenching this novel can be. Read it for yourself. It is a moving and powerful novel, thought-provoking, and provides a wealth of research and information from which to learn.
Reviewed by Michelle Baylis
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: October 2018