Wednesday 17 July 2019

Picoult takes on the abortion debate in timely new novel

Fiction: A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult, Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 368 pages, €20.39

Contentious issues: Jodi Picoult
Contentious issues: Jodi Picoult
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

The timing of Jodi Picoult's latest novel couldn't be more apt. A Spark of Light chronicles a deadly shooting and hostage-taking in a women's health clinic at a point when, in America, Roe v Wade is at risk of being overturned as the Supreme Court moves decidedly to the right, following the controversial confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, and in Ireland, a historic referendum prompted heated debates over abortion and the eventual vote to repeal the eighth amendment.

Picoult describes her work as "ethical or moral fiction", tackling contentious issues including rape, school shootings, religious identity, euthanasia and white supremacists. As well as the abortion debate, A Spark of Light explores post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, racism and gun control ("the waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun", she observes pointedly).

There are references to the 2009 assassination of Dr George Tiller - one of America's few late-term abortion providers - in a church, the fatal attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in 2015 and the Pulse shooting in Orlando in 2016.

One of the hostages was inspired by pro-life activist Lila Rose to go undercover in the clinic and obtain damaging footage to "expose the reality of these murder centres".

In Picoult's novel, as in real life, Mississippi has only one abortion clinic, whose future is threatened by the state's notoriously restrictive abortion laws. As with all of her books, A Spark of Light is painstakingly researched - Picoult interviewed 151 women who had terminated pregnancies, and also spoke to pro-life advocates. She shadowed the obstetrician gynaecologist Dr Willie Parker, on whom her Dr Louie Ward is based, and watched three procedures at various stages of gestation, parts of which she describes in graphic, unflinching passages in the novel.

In a first for Picoult, the story is told in reverse. The opening chapter takes place at 5pm, and each one thereafter rewinds an hour until we arrive at 8am that morning. The backward structure is likely to frustrate readers - we already know from the beginning who will survive the attack and, many times, Picoult writes as if she's explaining something for the first time, despite having mentioned it in an earlier chapter.

As well as draining much of the tension, the literary device stubbornly gets in the way of the backstories, some of which unfold rather uncomfortably in this form. It's a nuisance, because many of the backstories are intriguing: Dr Ward, for instance, a deeply religious black southerner, decided on his career after his mother died following a botched abortion.

In trying to draw parallels between the gunman, George, and hostage negotiator, Hugh, Picoult fixates on their feelings as fathers of daughters growing from girls to young women. George is seeking vengeance for his child's abortion, while Hugh doesn't learn until he's on the scene that his own daughter is inside the clinic.

Their pained introspection about "losing" their children to adulthood quickly grows repetitive, and unpleasantly proprietary, although a third father-daughter storyline provides a dose of suspense - that of Beth, a 17-year-old handcuffed to a bed in a hospital three hours away, facing a murder sentence after buying abortion pills online, and longing for her absent father.

While Picoult's extensive research is impressive, the story can get bogged down in medical terminology at times. More interesting is her portrait of the complex relationship between the staff at the Centre and the "antis" outside: "For years the employees had coexisted with the protestors the way that oil and water settled in a jar: in the same space, but separate.

"Each side had an odd, grudging respect for the fact that in spite of the obstacles, they both showed up every day to do the work they believed needed to be done."

The protestors compliment Dr Ward on his haircut, offer donuts to the staff and even give them hand-knitted mittens for Christmas.

Picoult seems to suggest that each side needs the other: Dr Ward sometimes feels like he "only existed in relation to the antis", as he asks himself, "Could you stand for something if there wasn't an opposition?"

Picoult usually works hard to challenge readers by developing compelling characters on both sides of a divisive issue - a feat she excelled in with her last novel, Small Great Things, about a white supremacist whose baby dies in the care of a black nurse.

This time, it's obvious where Picoult's sympathies lie, and the novel is unlikely to force pro-choice readers to reevaluate their beliefs. But, Picoult explains in the author's note, her aim is to give her pro-life readers pause.

At a critical juncture for women's reproductive rights, she has delivered a tough yet compassionate read that is guaranteed to spark debate.

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