Book Review | A Spark Of Light By Jodi Picoult

‘Both sides’. That’s what Jodi Picoult wants to show in her latest novel – her twenty-third, not counting co-written projects (two YA novels and a musical) or graphic novels (she’s written a Wonder Woman book as well, the prolific fiend!). The topic of reproductive choice – because there is always a thorny issue at play in Picoult’s work (previous titles have discussed autism, organ donation, child abuse, suicide, eugenics, lesbian adoption, the Holocaust) – is her focus here, with the action of A Spark Of Light playing out over the course of one day at a women’s clinic, a day when one angry man with a gun turns up.

Picoult has written about gun violence before, most notably in Nineteen Minutes, about a school shooting, in which she manages to elicit a certain amount of sympathy for the shooter – even though we know he has committed a terrible, awful crime. There is empathy and then there is excusing someone’s behaviour, and while Picoult’s writing tends to favour the former, it gets a bit blurry when she writes about the extremes mothers go to for their children.

Here, though, the shooter may be a parent but as with her previous book, Small Great Things (in which one of the narrators, a new father, is a skinhead who enjoys going out on gay-bashing expeditions), his actions are so odious that we may well understand why he carries them out while at the same time feeling the awful wrongness of them. We can know that someone fervently believes something while also noting how riddled with holes their logic is, or how callous it might be (in the case of ‘pro-life’ activists, it’s the elevation of the foetus to personhood while denying the personhood of its host, the woman in question). 

It alarms me when I read interviews with Picoult in which she expresses her desire to convey ‘both sides’ of the argument, and notes that some readers have contacted her saying ‘this is a pro-life novel!’ while others have insisted ‘it’s a pro-choice novel!’.

I worry about her need to be scrupulously fair to ‘both sides’, because quite frankly, I am sick of ‘both sides’.

‘Both sides’, of course, means something very different in Ireland than it does in the United States. Anti-choice activists in the US are protesting a thing that happens; anti-choice activists in Ireland, despite using much of the same rhetoric, are protesting a thing that is – until the new legislation passes – still illegal here. 

For Picoult’s characters, to be explicitly pro-life is a thing that will bring scorn upon you. Here, to be explicitly pro-life – if not the default – is to be respected for your moral stance, or at least it was up until a few months ago. There has been such caution talking about this issue, such care, such a need to ensure that the ‘other side’ are listened to. (They don’t appreciate this, of course. Anything other than complete control of the discussion is censorship. The Iona Institute still feel fiercely ‘oppressed’, as we know from . . . the mainstream media.)

So although I understand Picoult’s impulse to be fair to all her characters, to present them with empathy – and admire it both on a moral and literary level – I have the fear, reading this book. I’m aware I’m hypersensitive, as much of Ireland is, to this issue. 

I read A Spark of Light with trepidation. I don’t want a novel that takes great pains to be fair to ‘both sides’, because one side does not respect the rights of women. One ‘side’ pretends that women don’t die due to limited abortion access. ‘Pretends’ is an accurate word here. Oh, we know this here. Savita. Savita. We are sorry. We will never be finished apologizing.

Fortunately what I get is a novel that is honest. It features men and women who think of reproductive-health clinics as ‘abortion factories’ and one of them is a shooter and there is nothing so American as that conflict between the right to bear arms and the right to bodily autonomy. 

There are moments in Picoult’s novel, set in a backwards-timeline tale of a shooter at a clinic, that are evident pleas for partnership. When Janine, the anti-choice activist, befriends the recent patient Joy, and they engage in a bond of sisterhood, there is hope – but even then it is sickly-sweet.

This is not a story about how to understand the anti-choice extremist, and here’s the thing – there is no such thing as the pro-abortion extremist. There is no fierce feminist with a gun in hand demanding that every pregnant woman in a clinic abort her child right here, right now. 

Picoult’s tale ends up veering towards the preachy, but I’d rather that, than an insistence on some imagined neutrality. She recognizes it is very hard for some women, and that there can be, and often is, grief alongside relief. But she also recognizes – and this is where her book is at its most powerful – that both those who perform and those who opt for terminations in a hostile environment are heroes. For going against the grain. For risking their own lives. For having the strength to do what is right – and she is no doubt about what is right for a woman who doesn’t want a child, at that point in time, in those particular circumstances.

The writer who has built a career telling stories about what mothers do for their children understands all too well what it means to opt out of motherhood. And she respects the hell out of it.

At another point in time – maybe when Ireland was still not grappling with the ins and outs of abortion, maybe when various American states weren’t fighting back against restrictions and curtailments, weren’t trying to rescind Roe v Wade – I would find this book tiresome. Preachy. Whatever.

For now, I like it as a novel, and love it as a book, a manifesto, a call to arms.

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