Monday 23 September 2019

Jodie Picoult's A Spark of Light sparks debate

Fiction: A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult, Hodder & Stoughton €16.99

A Spark of Light
A Spark of Light

Anne Marie Scanlon

Given Jodi Picoult's track record of tackling moral and ethical issues in the US it's perhaps surprising that it's only now that the author has confronted the contentious issue of abortion. Like her previous novels, A Spark of Light is meticulously researched but in a radical departure from her usual form the story is told in reverse chronology.

The novel begins in crisis with anti-abortion gunman George Goddard holed up with hostages in The Centre - (as in real life, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi). Chief negotiator Hugh McElroy's job has been complicated by the fact that his 15-year-old daughter Wren, and his older sister Bex, were in the clinic when the gunman arrived. 

The reverse narrative works exceptionally well. The reader has no idea why Bex or Wren are there and can make only the obvious assumptions. Similarly, knowing that certain characters are dead from the offset makes for a huge emotional impact when the reader encounters them later on in the narrative.

Picoult's sympathies are fairly obvious but she takes care to present 'the other side' as fully rounded, multi-faceted characters with genuine reasons for their stance. The gunman is not the only one in the clinic who is anti-abortion; one of the hostages is from the permanent picket outside disguised as a patient.

Surprisingly given the subject matter the core of this novel isn't about mothers or motherhood but rather about the father-daughter dynamic. Both the gunman and negotiator are single fathers who have raised their respective teen daughters alone. They are both "good" fathers, doing the best they can for their children.

Another of the book's more memorable characters is Dr Louis Ward, a devout Catholic African American, who travels around different states providing abortions. It is he who makes the very pertinent observation that the "waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun".

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