Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

August 15, 2017 at 10:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I picked up this book at the airport, as a fairly easy read on the plane. Jodi Picoult is of course a very well known and prolific author, although I’d not read any of her books before.

As I expected, this is a well-written, easy to read book that rattles along. The theme it tackles, however, is far from lightweight; it is an examination of racism and racial tensions in contemporary USA. Against the backdrop of racially-charged police shootings, the rise of Trump and issues around immigration and American values, this is both a necessary and brave book.

Necessary, because these issues need airing constantly, and brave, because Jodi Picoult is a privileged, affluent white person – and writing about race is a challenge to do authentically and fairly when you have no lived experience to draw on.

The story revolves around Ruth; a black neo-natal nurse who is on duty when an medical incident occurs to the newborn child of a white supremacist couple. The baby dies, and Ruth is suspended by the hospital, and charged with negligence and murder. She is defended by a public advocate, and over the course of the novel the motivations, lives and prejudices of all the characters are examined. The book ends with a climactic courtroom scene which, whilst gripping, as a rather over-the-top twist right at the end that to me felt very forced.

It’s a novel that certainly illuminates the racial divide in today’s America. Picoult did a lot of research prior to writing this book; she details much of this in an essay that appends the novel. Aware of the sensitivity of the subject, she tries to do the right thing, and also apologises for any missteps she may have made. Racism is an issue that affects all America (and perhaps the whole world), and Picoult makes the point that this is a book to get whites reading about and understanding at least some of the issues – even if her voice is not the most authentic or original. It is notable that the black characters in the novel come across as the least nuanced and most two-dimensional.

I was interested when finishing the book to read the reactions of black reviewers to the novel. For the most part they are generous and understanding – this is not a ‘black novel’, but as a book that adds to the debate and might break through to some readers who would otherwise not consider the issues raised it has been for the most part praised.

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is a rattling good yarn as well as being very thought-provoking.

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