Saturday 3 December 2016

Deft touch captures a nation on the edge

Fiction: Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult, Hodder & Stoughton, hdbk, 512 pages, €19.50

Tanya Sweeney

Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30

Intimacy: Picoult's new novel tackles the intricacies of race and justice in the US
Intimacy: Picoult's new novel tackles the intricacies of race and justice in the US
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

A Jodi Picoult book release is often an event in itself, and rightly so. Often writing on pressing, high-concept topics, Picoult's prose is delicious and epic in scale; the literary equivalent of a five-course feast. And this, her 21st novel, carries on this fine tradition.

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Ruth Jefferson is Picoult's latest heroine. Raised as the daughter of a humble black maid in a privileged white household. Her mother had worked for the Head of Programming at NBC in a proper brownstone (even the doorbell had the TV station's signature melody), and the family's young daughter Christina was close in age, if not always in worldview, to Ruth and her sister Rachel. Rachel has, in the years since, renamed herself Adisa, and the two sisters are at odds.

Still, Ruth has grown to become both an experienced, well-liked nurse and devoted mother to a studious teenage son, Edison. Yet when a newborn baby dies after a routine procedure in the hospital that Ruth works in, she is forced into dilemma.

The newborn child in question, Davis, is the son of white supremacists, and Ruth has been expressly instructed by his parents not to touch the child. But when the baby goes into cardiac arrest on Ruth's shift, the nurse is forced to make a lightning-quick decision; comply with orders or go above protocol to save the baby's life? Her moment of hesitation eventually sees her charged with a serious crime. The hospital, unwilling to be slapped with an expensive lawsuit, effectively hangs Ruth out to dry.

She enlists the services of Kennedy McQuarrie, a middle-class public defender who has long prided herself on being a keen arbiter of social justice. Ruth's is the high-profile case, she reckons, she was born to take. Both she and Ruth argue the toss as to whether race should become a factor in Ruth's defence. Agreeing to disagree, the two forge ahead with the trial, learning as much about the world around them (and in Kennedy's case, her own unacknowledged prejudices) as each other. All the while, Turk, the bereaved father, is also struggling to make sense of unfolding events. He's a character who proudly sports a swastika tattoo on his head, and his hatred doesn't just stop at African-Americans. He and his wife Britt are unapologetic about their views, regularly attending meetings and fairs with like-minded types.

There is a vivid sense of empathy and intelligence in Picoult's writing, and she writes from the perspectives of each character with impressive élan. Turk is, predictably, hateful, but his passages may turn out to be this book's most compelling and memorable. There are no real winners in Picoult's tales, as often there aren't. And in modern-day America, where race relations are already on a knife-edge, Picoult captures the bleak futility of the situation. Questions aplenty are raised; few are answered conclusively.

At the end of Small Great Things, Picoult lists the books and articles she used to undertake research; it's a lengthy list, and the results of this fastidious research are all the story; her understanding of the intricacies of race and justice raging like fire through the tale. Picoult has long been able to make her readers re-evaluate their views on many difficult topics, and Small Great Things is no exception. "It's hard to talk about this stuff without offending people or feeling offended," surmises one of her characters. Yet it's Picoult's deft intimacy that makes this a universal tale that demands to be read by everyone. Expect the book hangover to last for days.

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