Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, A Spark of Light, tackles the abortion debate and pulls no punches. The story opens in Mississippi’s sole remaining abortion clinic, where a gunman has killed several people, including the clinic’s owner, gravely wounded several more, and is holding the rest – staff and patients – as hostages. The police negotiator is desperately trying to talk him down before the SWAT team takes control, and also to keep secret his discovery that his own daughter is inside. One of the hostages is an anti-abortion protester who’s gone undercover to try to obtain incriminating evidence of wrongdoing that will shut the clinic down. As if that weren’t dramatic enough, in another part of the state a teenaged girl has been charged with murder after a self-induced abortion through pills she’d bought on the internet.
All of this is explosive enough, but Picoult doesn’t simplify, preach, or condescend. Every one of her characters, from the shooter to the spy to the negotiator, to the critically injured doctor and intrepid nurses, to the girl who was at the clinic to get oral contraceptives to the elderly woman facing a terminal diagnosis, come across as people with their own histories, tragedies, and deeply held beliefs. More than that, Picoult leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions from a spectrum of sympathetic but ultimately incompatible agendas.
What happens next is even more challenging to the reader. Instead of moving forward chronologically, each successive section moves us back in time. We see the stage before the events we’ve just witnessed, and the stage before that, and so forth, until the day is ordinary, the work routine, beliefs are yet untested and courage untried. Poignantly, we see the people killed by the shooter as alive and vital. The final section draws together all the disparate threads to make the story whole.
For me, however, the most moving part of the book was the Author’s Note, where Picoult talks about her interviews with people all along the spectrum from opposing abortion under any circumstances to advocating for no restrictions whatever. She points out that a significant number of abortions are done for financial reasons, and offers suggestions for reducing the number by addressing that desperation. Raising the minimum wage and offering government-funded child care and universal health care would all make it financially more feasible to bear and raise children. Discouraging employers from firing or refusing to hire pregnant women is another approach.
Finally she writes,
Honestly, I do not believe we, as a society, will ever agree on this issue. The stakes are too high and both sides operate from places of unshakable belief. But I do think that the first step is to talk to each other – and more important, to listen. We may not see eye to eye, but we can respect each other’s opinions and find the truth in them. Perhaps in those honest conversations, instead of demonizing each other, we might see each other as imperfect humans, doing our best.