I still remember picking up a Picoult in Tesco Metro, nearly 15 years ago. I talk more about it in this post, from the Archives.
The last book I read of hers before “Spark of Light” was “Small Great Things”, which told the tale of a black nurse in the middle of a lawsuit with white supremacists who accuse her of killing their baby. It has all of the hallmarks of a great Picoult – a tricky situation, empathy with all those concerned through showing different perspectives in a sensitive and well handled way and engaging action throughout with just enough mystery to keep you guessing about what’s going to happen.
“Spark of Light” starts off in the middle of a hostage situation in a medical facility which provides abortions. Hot button topic right there, made more complicated by the presence of the hostage negotiator’s teenage daughter and his sister, caught up in the middle. Hugh convinces the gunman to swap his daughter for him in the hostages.
The story unfolds in a spiral pattern, almost – looping back around to the abortion centre time and again before swooping away to introduce one of the other hostages. I found this to be really confusing and I think one of the reasons why is because the characters of the women are not clearly drawn. I couldn’t tell the difference in voice between Olive, Joy, Jasmine, Izzy, Bex or Wren and kept having to check which one was which. This was distracting and disengaging as I found it hard to concentrate on the storyline.
I usually enjoy a bit of non linear narrative but in this instance, I don’t think it added value to the novel and instead added ambiguity and confusion.
As we pick through the characters and how they got to be in the situation, we start to realise that they were all there for a different reason and under different circumstances. Olive’s been given months to live after a devastating cancer diagnosis, Wren wants to practice safe sex and George (the shooter) is angry because his daughter had an abortion. While I understood where Jodi was coming from in terms of telling each story and representing lots of different perspectives on why a centre like this is necessary (not all of them being for abortions), it came across as a bit heavy handed and a lot more ‘afternoon special’ than her previous books.
The father-daughter dynamic between George and his mysteriously unlocatable daughter, and Hugh and Wren, are carefully painted and positioned almost as a possessive relationship. This didn’t sit comfortably with me – your children are not yours to own, waiting to be set free whenever you see fit. Wren is 16/17 years old – almost old enough to vote and definitely old enough to make her own decisions. The inference that women are looked after by their fathers until they are deemed old enough to be ‘passed on’ to their boyfriends and husbands was a bit much for me. This may not have been the intention but it was definitely how it read. Hugh spends quite a few chapters pining over her lost childhood, which bordered on creepy, in my opinion.
Jodi Picoult had clearly done a lot of research around abortion laws, the main issues and real life examples, and that showed. I think that concentrating on one or two of the stories would have made it more engaging and easier to follow.