"Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult
When a newborn baby dies after a routine hospital procedure, there is no doubt about who will be held responsible: the nurse who had been banned from looking after him by his father.
What the nurse, her lawyer and the father of the child cannot know is how this death will irrevocably change all of their lives, in ways both expected and not.
Jodi Picoult doesn't shy away from controversial and emotional topics. Her books always guarantee a great plot, complex characters who are full of conflict, several 'rug pulling' moments and a fierce need for discussion once you've turned the last page. "Small Great Things" is no exception.
It is a while since I last picked up any Picoult, but I have read nearly all her titles. They are a dependable 'go to' for anyone who enjoys issue based dramas or stories exploring thought provoking situations. As soon as I started this one, I was reminded how well she crafts her plot.
There are recognisable traits in her fiction. There's nearly always a court case, big dilemmas, consequences that ripple through families, friendships and communities in ways you'd never expect and characters who you end up changing your whole opinion of as the story develops - or as your own prejudices are put to the test. And an ending that you didn't see coming!
"Small Great Things" delivers on all these points.
"....there was a moment - one heartbeat, one breath- where all the differences in schooling and money and skin colour evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal and it was just one woman, helping another."
The opening establishes the key themes of the book, which is racial prejudice and equality. I was intrigued that Picoult also sets the opening of her novel in a maternity ward - perhaps one of the most emotive environments which will already hold deeply personal connotations for many readers. But perhaps it is fitting to start somewhere that sees joy, pain, love, loss - a place where people's lives change forever and shape a new future.
Centring the story around a vulnerable new born baby is bold and throws the reader straight into a highly sensitive and harrowing situation. As we have come to expect, Picoult is going to have us in tears at least once while we read this book, if not more!
We meet Ruth Jefferson. Maternity nurse. A professional who is excellent at her job. We meet Brit and Turk Bauer who have just delivered their first baby. Immediately Ruth is aware there is something wrong as she enters the room. Assuming it is the overwhelmingly possessive love new parents can have which makes them unwilling to give up their baby for her to check, Ruth accommodates this in the way she checks the baby. An atmosphere remains. Later she is to find out it is because she is black. The post it note she discovers on the Bauer's baby's file is a shocking revelation.
"No African American Personnel to care for this patient."
Ruth is pragmatic, strong and intelligent. She has lived a lifetime of fighting to prove her worth. Her constant repetition of her education and qualifications, and the surprise in which it is always met, reflects how hard she has worked to succeed in life despite the daily prejudice she suffers. She is a good person and the reader instantly warms to her as a character. She works hard and is determined to make sure her son has all the opportunities he's entitled to if not more.
"He is going to college and he will be anything he wants to be. I've spent my life making sure of it."
She makes some effective observations very early on which feed the reader as they consider the situation presented to them. Her honest language making her points even more pertinent.
"every baby is born beautiful, it's what we project on them that makes them ugly."
I particularly liked her description of Turk. It captured his personality so well.
"Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that's snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks."
In contrast to Ruth, the chapters alternate between her narrative, Turk's narrative and that of Kennedy, Ruth's legal representation. Turk is aggressive, potentially violent and an active member of racist groups. Kennedy is an intelligent, successful member of a legal team who is driven by justice. Picoult uses the alternating voices to build tension, explore the character's back stories in more detail and to look at the same situation through very different points of reference. This makes the book complex and adds depth. It also makes it very readable and very engaging. All the characters are interesting and intriguing enough to make you read on, whether you like them or not, and the dynamics between Ruth and Kennedy are particularly absorbing. The chapters are long and Picoult's writing can be quite dense, but the variation in narrative voice ensures that the plot always moves forward and carries the reader through the novel at a good pace.
Despite Turk's general behaviour and beliefs, he does have moments of insight and gives the reader an opportunity to feel some empathy for him. His account of his grief and how they try to deal with the loss of their son is moving.
"What no one told me about grief is how lonely it is. No matter who else is mourning, you're in your own little cell. Even when people try to comfort you, you're aware that now there is a barrier between you and them, made of the horrible thing that happened, that keeps you isolated."
Once we arrived at the court case, I really put my feet up and settled in.
"Ruth Jefferson," she says, "Murderer," a woman screams. There is a buzz in the crowd that swells to a roar.
This is classic Picoult. This is that moment when you turn the phone on to mute and make sure you have a fresh cup of coffee. This is the bit when you are transported to a court room and listen transfixed to the questions, statements, revelations, last minute evidence and surprise witnesses as the characters battle it out with wit, cleverness, manipulation, skill and emotion. Always so satisfying! Always that moment when the character you care for says the wrong thing, reveals a secret, loses their temper! Always waiting for that moment when the rug is pulled out from underneath you as suddenly things slip into place or a final connection is made. Always worth waiting for and always rewarding!
Kennedy works hard. The relationship between her and Ruth is really well crafted. They are women who are not initially drawn to each other but come to learn much from each other. Ultimately Kennedy is dedicated and wants to save the world even when she knows she can't. Ruth too wants to champion a cause and chance the world.
"Ruth looks into my eyes, and for a moment, I can see right down into the heart of her."
There is not much more to say other than I would recommend this book. We all know what we are getting with Picoult and it's a great relief to see that her latest piece of work does not disappoint. It is as full of drama, sentiment, empathy and conflict as her others and delivers characters who you are prepared to care about and become involved with. It's a satisfying read and one to savour for when you need your fix of ethical and social drama.
My thanks to Netgalley for the advanced copy of this novel.
"Small Great Things" is now in paperback (20th April 2017) published by Hodder.
For more recommendation and reviews, please follow me on twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)