A Spark of Interest
I’ve been meaning to read something by Jodi Picoult for ages, but she’s a popular lady and rarely on the shelves of my local library. So I was thrilled to hear she’d released a book on the topic of abortion in America, a subject close to my heart and one that ripples through the background of What Lies Behind. I was beside myself when I saw A Spark of Light land on the ‘recent returns’ shelf as I walked past, half expecting it to disappear by the time my slow-motion hand reached out for it. But no, here it is, picture to prove. Now, be warned, SPOILERS AHEAD.
This book is brave.
Picoult knows how to take a weighty issue and bake it. She gives a balanced view of the abortion issue that brings into focus issues of female sexuality, race bias, medical funding, religion, individual truth and the irreconcilable demands of law making. This is no Victoria sponge, OK? A Spark of Light is intricate, multi-layered, intense.
It is structurally resonant with its topic, unveiling backwards in time from the critical moment, peeling back the layers of choice faced by the many characters, and beyond them to the impacts of other people’s choices. This was an interesting narrative tool, causing a ricochet effect across the chapters, reaching forward through the pages to each mini crisis, pushing me as a reader back to the hour before that, the action before that, the choice before that. Very much as a woman does when faced with that thin blue line. Wondering what begot the current moment and what comes afterwards. It was a dissonant experience. I was stuck between discomfort with the effect and admiration for the authorial decision to structure her novel in such a way.
Yet this was not a book dealing with women’s problems. A Spark of Light insists on, and persists in, asking where men stand in relation to ‘women’s issues’. How men make convenient sexual decisions without having to face the inconvenient consequences of conception, and then couch the abortion topic in terms of female morality. She embeds men into the narrative, from the lovers, leavers, doctors and lawmakers, to the heart of a story about two fathers and their daughters. There was an element here of good v bad that I found a little simplistic, but even good dad struggles to engage with his daughter when it comes to talking about her sexual maturity and choices, and this uncomfortable absence of conversation was mutated by the enforced conversation between good and bad dad, pitched in the novel as police negotiator and hostage taker. Simplistic? I think not. You take that flaw and twist it into another twanging string Ms Picoult, I see what you did there! We can talk about these things one way or another; we can either talk in a healthy way, or we can talk in a crisis. This is an everyone’s issue.
The book jacket claims; ‘it is hard to exaggerate how well Picoult writes’, and this is evident in the mastery of lesser details as well as the artisan framework. The strokes with which a character is sketched, the depth of research compressed, as ‘gold and diamonds are by the pressure of a star dying’, the swiftness with which the plot decompresses into the circularity of its theme.
But….and this is a big BUT…there was something lost in the grand design; my connection to the characters. Whilst the circularity of the debate and structure serve the topic, the interconnectedness of the storyline effaces the individuality of the characters. Making them little more than carriers of a debate. The fine links between them felt convenient to theme not causative of action. I did not feel for these characters. I finished the book because I knew I needed to listen, not because I wanted to know about the characters. Ultimately, I found the ending an idealised sacrifice to position. And worse, I didn’t care that much that I was disappointed, because I hadn’t been rooting for the characters all along. A little like the old lady who dies for being loyal to the clinic, I wasn’t sure why I was there in the end.
Now, I’m not saying Ms Picoult should be held up for not delivering on the blistering abortion debate. I mean come on, the whole point here is that both parties believe with equal vigour and the stakes are high on both sides. But, for me, a novel is about character and in the abortion debate it’s easy enough to lose sight of the people behind the issues. I wanted to hold these characters in my heart and weep for them. But I didn’t.
This is my first Picoult novel. As a writer it won’t be my last, because there is so much to learn from her work (and wonderful moments of sitting there in admiration for her language, her sketching, her morphism, hoping one day, nay, praying, begging, to be this skilful), but I hope A Spark of Light won’t be the best.
My rating system might seem a bit odd, but got to be honest, I couldn’t decide between an ‘out of five’ or ‘out of ten’ system and realised I didn’t like either. Reading and writing is about words, so why use numbers to rate books?
Structure and topic. Admiration
Set up to pay off. Indigestion.
Emotional punch. Hit by a gnat. I think it was a gnat.