Book review: Small Great Things


 

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I love nothing more than a good story. If you’re looking for someone who appreciates beautiful prose or elaborate explorations of characters, you’re probably on the wrong blog, because what I want from a book is to be engaged by the story. Good prose and solid characterisations help along the way, but it’s a good page-turner that will get me every time.

For that reason one of the authors I will return to again and again is Jodi Picoult. Yes, her books can be a little formulaic. But it’s a winning formula for a reason. She presents morality plays with well-drawn characters that hook the reader, and her mastery of the narrative arc is second to none.

I was sent Picoult’s latest novel, Small Great Things (you might recognise this from a Martin Luther King quote), to review last week, and I finished it within 48 hours.  Picoult is on top form with her usual focus on a topical moral issue – this time the book is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. She acknowledges in the afterword something that occurred to me almost immediately when I started reading – that a privileged white woman writing about race in the US is uncomfortable – but her ability to inhabit a character is excellent, when she’s speaking from the perspective of a black nurse, or a white power warrior.

The story of that black nurse, whose encounter with a white power activist, his wife and their newborn baby turns nasty, is compelling and fast-paced. One day Ruth Jefferson is going about her work at a busy maternity hospital in white, wealthy New Haven, and the next her life has spiralled out of control as she comes to the realisation that despite her scholarships, her Yale education, and her struggle to redraw her life as a middle-class one in which her colour is invisible, to others, her blackness still defines her.

The book gives a frightening insight into the hate and fear that drives the White Power movement through the eyes of white power activist Turk Bauer and his network of family and associates.

As a white, middle-class reader, this book provides not just a great read but a hell of a lot to think about. Being conscious of race is one thing, but getting into the head of somebody who lives with insidious racism with every breath, is an invaluable exercise. I’ll be interested in reading reviews by black readers – did Picoult get it right, or has she co-opted their experience?

Politics aside, it’s going to be another Picoult classic. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, it’s available for pre-order on Amazon but not out until November.

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