I’d always thought Jodi Picoult was not an author for me. I’ve seen her books in shops and have shelved many a volume back onto the library shelves but I was never tempted by what I suspected to be her subject matter nor by the look of her books, which in this country are rather wispy covers geared very much to a female market and with, I assumed a lot of misery contained within.
This novel, her 23rd looks very different. The UK edition shows a strident black and white striped cover but I was still fairly resistant. I saw the blurb which referred to it as a “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the 21st Century, this made me even more resistant. I couldn’t see how my all time favourite could be compared to someone’s 23rd novel, surely by now that author would have developed a set formula for the fans and towards the best sellers list. I was, admittedly, prejudiced towards this novel and given the theme this now seems rather pertinent.
I was still resisting as I read, initially lots of detail about childbirth and with a white supremacist as one of the narrators I felt initially like I might find this a little heavy-going. But, oh my! Picoult is a superb modern American storyteller on a par with Stephen King, who I would put forward as perhaps the greatest living American storyteller, even though there are a number of his books that I don’t like. On the evidence of this book alone King may need to share his plinth with Picoult.
The tale is told by three narrators; Ruth, an experienced African-American nurse; Turk, a white supremacist who objects to Ruth being involved in his new-born baby’s care and Kennedy, a white female relatively inexperienced public defender who takes on the ensuing court case. And plot-wise that is all you are going to get from me because I really want you to read this book.
At its heart is racism in all its aspects in modern-day America. In many ways Picoult is putting her head above the parapet as a privileged white woman writing a book which broadly focuses on what it is to be African-American in the USA today. It feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing. There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book. I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.
Picoult’s handling of the plot and her manipulation of us as readers of whatever skin colour and gender is sublime. Characterisation is so strong and as the court case develops I found I was holding my breath as I read. The narrators show their flaws and cause us to make judgements which are then challenged. Picoult’s 21st Century America seems more chilling than the America of Harper Lee but I could see the comparison clearly, which I did not think I would. It does lack the roundness of the classic but there’s certainly the depth and could very well be a book still being read fifty years on. I think that a lot of the appeal for us aficionados of “Mockingbird” is that we tended to read it at a formative time of our lives and it stays with us. Maybe this is what should be happening to this novel, finding itself onto the school curriculum.
If there is a fault I thought that there was an attempt to give too neat a final ending but discovered on reading the author’s note that the particular event I am questioning is based on a true situation. Truth is often said to be stranger than fiction so I’ve no problems with Jodi incorporating this into her novel.
I found it to be a gripping tale, a real thought-provoking eye opener and I’m sorry if I’ve been prejudiced in prejudging her books by their covers up until now. I was right about one thing, she does like to pile misery onto her characters but here it is done powerfully and convincingly. This is being called Jodi Picoult’s most important work and it has certainly changed things for me.
“Small Great Things” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books. Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Jodi Picoult. You have until 10th February to register your vote.
Small Great Things was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in November 2016.