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Pickle Me This

January 21, 2019

Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken

There is a house in Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, that defies all the rules of conventional architecture. It’s got eight sides and a cupola, a spiral staircase up the middle. “The walls were filled with lime and gravel and ground rice, and stuccoed with a combination of plaster and coal dust.” And in terms of narrative architecture, McCracken has similarly tossed out the rulebook aside for this, her sixth book and third novel. (Her two most recent books are the short story collection Thunderstruck and Other Stories, and a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.)

The unconventional house is not actually the novel’s central edifice, however, although they’re both commanded by the same character, a woman we meet in Bowlaway’s very first sentence: “They found a body in the Salford Cemetary, but aboveground and alive.” This is Bertha Truitt, of the gapped teeth and enormous bosom, who claims to be the inventor of candlepin bowling and is utterly uninterested in delineating the story of where she came from. (For the most part, so is Bowlaway itself.) Like everything McCracken writes—sentences, paragraphs, characters, action scenes—Bertha Truitt is vivid. The heart and soul of the book, one would think, or at least its foundation or supporting beam, if we’re back to architecture. But forget the rules, remember? Because Bertha Truitt is deceased by page 78 (and no, this is not “a spoiler.” Bowlaway is a book that could not be possibly be spoiled), swept away to her death in the Great Molasses Flood, Boston, 1919.

I will admit that at first I was unsure of my footing as a reader in this narrative, because it really is one in which the bottom can fall out at any time. Because I’d arrived at Bowlaway with fixed ideas about the way a narrative should go, ie the protagonist should not necessarily drown in molasses on page 78. Because this novel isn’t easy, and it’s full of tricks and play, and ghosts, and babies who die before they’re born, and sons who are actually ex-husbands. It’s not an simple read, and the reader has to pay attention, but the rewards of that attention are considerable, immense. Her previous novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, which I loved, was about two vaudeville performers, and Bowlaway is similarly larger than life (McCracken is also author of a novel called The Giant’s House), a spectacle.

But instead of a stage, the setting is a bowling alley, Bertha Truitt’s candlepin alley, Truitt’s, later named Bowlaway two generations following (although the family tree is complicated). Scene of one spontaneous combustion, as well as a murder, and home to a ghost, McCracken follows the alley and its regulars through three-quarters of the twentieth century in a novel that is unlike any other book you’ve read before, as rare as an eight-sided house inhabited by extinct avian species. With sentences and imagery that are shocking in their freshness and perfection—the mother who gives out love in homeopathic doses, say. There is no other writer who writes like Elizabeth McCracken, and I’ve never read a book quite like Bowlaway.

January 17, 2019

This Keeps Happening, by H.B. Hogan

Don’t get too comfortable with the stories in H.B. Hogan’s debut, This Keeps Happening. Although even if you wanted to, you couldn’t, because you’ll only end up with eviscerated squirrels and a woman whose mother’s gross boyfriend has shit running down his legs, and where’s the comfort in that? But even still, it’s hard to look away, and each of these stories are really compelling, although the first couple conclude on notes that aren’t as illuminating as they’d like to be. By “A Fare for Francis,” about a cab driver in Thunder Bay whose fare doesn’t take his racist bait the wait he intends, however, I was locked in to this collection and read the entire thing on Sunday evening while soaking in the tub.

Hogan’s characters are shackled, all of them, whether by poverty and low expectations or else suburban lot lines, and if the alternative to the former is the latter, then one can see where the problems arise. In “The Babysitter,” a ten-year-old girl risks an encounter with a precocious teenage neighbour. In “The Princess is Dead,” a man despairs of his life while his wife sits in their house weeping over the death of Princess Diana. In “Empties,” a teenage girl longs for freedom and opportunity as she and her friend walk across Oshawa in an attempt to make six bucks returning bottles to The Beer Store. A conflict resolution class gets difficult in “Louis Remembers.” In “Esteem,” Alison’s middle-class dreams get trounced on and she ends up lying on the pavement. And then, “The Mouths of Babes,” which was so gross and horrifying that I had to tell my small children about it, and the darkness underlining, the mother stirring Kool-Aid, that reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.

This is a book that grew on me, and a collection whose stories, characters and geographies I’ve been thinking about in the days since I read it. The opposite of being comfortable, this is a book that—in the best ways—gets under the skin.

January 14, 2019

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

I’ve been avoiding bookshops lately (except for a trip to Type Books’ new location in The Junction in December!) with a focus on reducing the overwhelming number of books on my to-be-read shelf. Which I’ve been pretty successful at with a huge tower of reading completed over the holidays, and also a clear-out of more than a few books that I decided to finally accept that I would never read. And when I finished reading Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg, on Saturday morning (acquired from a Little Free Library; has been sitting on my shelf for months; is so incredible but also very sad) and we had no further plans for the day, I decided that what I really, really needed was a bookshop venture, and my family was kind enough to accompany me, obviously with the promise of snacks.

And what a wonderful thing, for me at least, although probably not my family, to arrive at the bookshop without an idea of what I was looking for. Something more uplifting than Did You Ever Have a Family, was my premise, though I wasn’t exactly successful on that front, but then a book need not be uplifting when it is brilliant, original and completely affecting. The book was Sarah Moss’s new novel, Ghost Wall, which only just came out (super exciting—I tend to be either six months or decades behind on all the newest things) and I’d read the review in the Toronto Star that morning. Beginning my Sarah Moss discovery, which I’ve been longing to embark upon on reading Rohan Maitzen’s reviews of her other books, which sound as intriguing as they are wide-ranging.

It’s a slim little novel whose design (in Canada, at least) is delicate and exquisite, a book made up of all kinds of competing tensions. Silvie is a teenager from Northern England whose bus driver father is an Iron Age enthusiast in his spare time, and she’s been raised on his rambles and fascinations of ancient Britons, and therefore knows how to forage for bilberries, which makes her an object of fascination for the university students her family is spending her dad’s annual leave with on their experiential archeology course. The professor and Silvie’s dad couple their skills and knowledge, leaving Silvie with the students, just a few years older than she is, worldly in a way she’s never been able to fathom. Her time with them is a brief reprieve from her father’s rigid control, but then she’s defensive around them, knowing they’re judging her parents’ accents and background. She also knows that aligning them too much will provoke her father’s wrath, whose force and dangerousness gradually becomes more apparent as the narrative progresses and underlines the novel’s idyllic setting and celebration of the natural world with something much more sinister.

Unabashedly feminist, Ghost Wall dares to question what people are really reaching for when they’re yearning for a simpler time, for an authentic kind of culture, or whiteness, or Britishness. Just what is fundamental about who we are and where we come from, and who gets to be in charge of that? It’s sharp, fast-paced, and disturbing, an exercise in minimalism and subtly. I loved it.

January 9, 2019

Escape Room Reads

I’ve been thinking lately about how grateful I am to everyone who has never invited me to an escape room party, and I was thinking this even before the story about the five Polish teenagers who died while trapped in an escape room facility that caught fire. There are few things I would like to do less than visit an escape room, and if I was ever forced into such an endeavour, I’d simply bring a book and read in a corner until it was time for me to go.

I’ve only ever encountered an actual escape room in fiction once before, in the story “Prize” in Jessica Westhead’s collection Things Not to Do, in which a couple of would-be entrepreneurs decide to get into the industry. “Allen works in data administration and I’m currently a cashier but I have my diploma in business communications so we’re already in an advantageous position, combined-projected-earnings wise.” Things do not go well, however, and the story is creepy sinister in a way that I now imagine all escape rooms actually are, which only underlines my aversion. No, I would definitely prefer to read a book…and the two escape-room-esque novels that I’ve read in the past week have only made this feeling stronger.

The first was Nine Perfect Strangers, by Lianne Moriarty, who has not disappointed me ever since I first read Big Little Lies, and then Truly Madly Guilty and What Alice Forgot. Moriarty is a master of compelling plots, suspense, and richly textured characters…but I will admit that this novel let me down just a little bit. About nine people who show up at a remote wellness spa, run by a woman who just might deranged, and at one point they really do all get locked in a room and it seemed very contrived and unnecessary, which is nothing I’ve ever said about a Lianne Moriarty novel before. The problem was structural—each of her characters has an incredible backstory, and there is humour and pathos, and each individual story manages to be really evocative—the has-been romance novelist who’s just been swindled in an online romance scam, the family trying to move on after the suicide of their eldest son, a young couple that’s drifted apart after their lottery win, washed up athlete whose life seems meaningless, woman whose husband has ditched her for a newest model, and the startlingly handsome man whose boyfriend wants them to have a baby, but he’s having none of it. Each of these characters should have been given a novel of their own, but to toss them all into one book like a grab-bag just seems wasteful. I enjoyed most of the book well enough, but close to the end I was really frustrated, as though this was plot for the sake of plot (like an escape room, no less) instead of a story. But by the end Moriarty had managed to tie it all up in such a way that my feelings toward the book were almost warm again, but still, this was not my favourite. Which is not to say that I’m going to give up my vow to read everything Lianne Moriarty ever publishes.

I had the opposite reaction to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, which I gave to my husband for Christmas and read when he was finished it. (I know what I’m doing when it comes to giving gifts.) He’d really enjoyed it and I was looking forward to appreciating for myself, and was disappointed to find the beginning a bit frustrating. It wasn’t bad, and the pace was fast, but I just wasn’t sure why it was supposed to be interesting. The way I suppose I’d be if I ever actually did visit an escape room, having to listen to all the rules and wondering why I needed to bother. Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? But it was, very quickly, Turton’s bestselling first novel that has been described as Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror. The narrator wakes up in a body belonging to a guest attending a party at a crumbling stately home where that night there is going to be a murder, and it’s up to the narrator to figure out what’s happening, and before he does he will wake up in the body of a variety of different party guests, and live the same day over again. I really liked this book, and enjoyed the twists and surprises and—except for one bit in which the twists comes because the narrator has withheld vital info from the reader—it’s all deftly plotted and very taut, and the revelation at the end about the purpose of this game which our narrator has got himself locked into turns out to be really interesting and expansive. Which is the point, I think, and the problem with escape rooms—there’s got to be a reason why you’re there in the first place.

January 8, 2019

Little Yellow House, by Carissa Halton

Last summer after a terrible thing happened in my city, I wrote a post about how “My favourite thing about living in a city is being able to disabuse myself of the notion that the place where I live is not a place where ‘something like this can happen.’ To live in a city is to live in a  place where anything can happen, which is actually the case with living anywhere, but in a city we know it by heart.” Which is the kind of awareness and understanding Carissa Halton celebrates in her book, Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood, a collection of candid essays about being part of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood, an inner-city community where all kind of things happen, some awful and others beautiful.

It is important to be clear about what her book is not: an anthropological analysis of life among the lower classes, Halton and her family taking advantage of lower real estate prices, all the while taking notes on the neighbours. Because while Halton does write about the tension inherent in her story, the “irony and responsibility” (“In the worst-case scenario, my family becomes a threat. By fixing up our home and our yard, by our activism, we run the risk of increasing property values on our street, which could lead to major affordability issues in decades to come.”) she does not see herself as removed from the world she’s describing.

She begins the book by writing about moving with her husband to what had been described to her as “the shitty part of town.” The neighbourhood was closer to their jobs, would provide them a better understanding of the people they worked with running social programs, and her grandparents had grown up there. And yes, they could afford a house. “You’ll move when you have kids,” they were told, but then they had three, and they didn’t move when the children went to school either, or when the children grew, and the house seemed smaller. “And while we wished there were fewer empty storefronts along the main avenue and fewer johns trolling to buy sex, the elm trees on the boulevard shaded the streets that led to the homes of our extended family,” and there were cafes and bakeries, playgrounds, and a library. “In short,” Halton writes, “we discovered shitty is how you see it.”

She writes about, perhaps unwisely, confronting a man dumping massive quantities of broken tiles in her alley whilst being very pregnant. “Drug Houses Make Bad Neighbours” is the terrifying story of their friends who moved into the neighbourhood in 1994 and dealt with neighbours in a dodgy rental who’d threaten the when they called police, and police who’d offer advice such as, “Ma’am, you should like a very reasonable person. Can I advise you to just move?” With a journalist’s eye, she tells the life story of a man who’d end up dying of blunt force trauma not far from where she lives who was once a little boy who wanted to be an astronaut. In “Hell is Other People,” she writes about how good fences make good neighbours, and how her band of children are sometimes her neighbour’s own hell.

Her essays are about neighbour kids, the friends she found on mat leave and how they spent their days, about a friend of a friend who took in a neighbour when he was forced out of his rooming house, where he’d been sheltering feral cats. About NIMBYs, and the joys of treasure-hunting at the thrift shop, lice and bedbugs, working at a soup kitchen, about a police officer mistaking her for a sex worker while she’s waiting at the bus stop for her kids to arrive home from school. About community initiatives to deal with the sex trade on the streets where her children play, and another essay that tells the stories of women who’ve worked on those streets. About trees and birds and greenery. About going stir-crazy as a stay-at-home mom, and finding enterprising ways to make their smaller home work as their family grows.

Great cities and neighbourhoods are containers for stories, just like this book is, and every one of these is delightfully readable and well-written right down to the sentence level. And Halton is not afraid of tension, of ambiguity and uncertainty, something living in the city teaches you, and so each of these stories is suspended in a careful place, not neatly packaged or simply concluded. Which gives their culmination the effect of a walk through a city street, of glimpses, moments, and changing scenes—a most satisfying and delightful excursion.

January 3, 2019

The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson is my friend, in addition to being a superstar bestselling novelist, and while her latest book, The Gown, is the first novel I’ve read in 2019, I didn’t set out with plans to write about it. I was reading it for fun, you see, and I’m still not properly off-vacation anyway, so I thought that this book, which tells the story of two women who worked on the embroidery on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown for her 1947 wedding to Prince Philip, would be a mostly just an enjoyable endeavour. And it was, beginning with the two narrative threads set in 1947 London (from the perspectives of a working class English woman living on her own and another who has just emigrated from France with a reference letter from Christian Dior, hoping to leave wartime trauma behind her), and another in Toronto in 2016 (a journalist is laid off from her job at a magazine and decides to pursue the mystery of a piece of embroidery found among her late grandmother’s possessions). The threads themselves perfectly nice and even lovely, and I was thinking, “I like this book. Good for Jen Robson…” And then about 100 pages in, suddenly I was unable to think about anything but the story and I only wanted to read it, and it was more like, Good for Jen Robson for being a novel-writing genius. It’s not the threads themselves, but what she does with them, how they’re woven together to create a plot that’s deeply compelling, a setting that’s oh-so evocative. A story about ladies and tea and sewing that it also a novel about class divides, date rape, the Holocaust, systemic barriers for working class women, female friendship, the utter deprivation that was England under austerity in 1947, and yes, about the royal wedding.

But it was her ideas about art that really made me want to write about The Gown, about what’s allowed to be Art and what isn’t. Unsurprisingly, she had me at the part where Ann puts down her mending and picks up a teacup painted with countryside scenes. “So I took them down to the antiques shop on Ripple Road, and the fellow there looked at the pieces and said they were Royal Worcester… He told me they were painted by a man named Harry Stinton. He said Harry Stinton was one of the best artists of the last hundred years. And you can’t tell me the paintings on this cup and saucer aren’t art, because they are.” She’s explaining this to her friend and housemate Miriam, who is beginning a project in which the story of family—murdered at Auschwitz—is memorialized on a series of embroidery panels. Miriam is an artist, Ann is insisting, even if she isn’t “carving marble sculptures or painting oil portraits of politicians.” And there is artistry too in the embroidery that went into a wedding dress for a princess, work for which the women who did it received no acknowledgement. And so the entire novel is a way to have their story told. As Robson explained in Entertainment Weekly, “If there’s one overriding reason that I write, it’s to give voices to women who lived in the past.”

It all had me thinking about what kind of writing, what kind of books, are allowed to be Art, are allowed to be Literature. How we are forever forced to endure manifestos by male critics about how literature is not enough of a national expression, or else an aesthetic pursuit, or even the one about it’s being destroyed by writers’ social connections and an abandonment of individuality (by which he means: Down with women and friendship!). How in order to be Art, a book must be appreciated at the sentence level, and any appeal above that is frivolity. I would not consider approaching any of these critics for their opinions on work rendered on fine bone china.

And I’ve always been confused about what their objectives are, what it would mean if their visions came to be pass and we all decided that indeed, a book should only ever be just one single thing. It occurs to me that this is like declaring that artistic expression must only be conveyed by oil paints and canvas, which means no more sculpture, textiles, alley murals, comic strips, photography, and patterns on teacups. Imagine no more embroidery, or beading, or lace, or quilts, or patterns in the carpets—and of course, there is a gendered element to all of this. What a somber expedition every trip to the gallery would be.

I loved The Gown for its characters, plot and setting, and fascinating historical detail—Robson has a doctorate in British economic and social history from Oxford University. But I especially loved it for shining a light on the craft, talent and vision—genius—necessary for the creation of art that is beautiful, useful, and even commercial. These are works that, instead of being rarefied, are part and parcel of everyday life, which are all the more reason to celebrate them and declare how much they matter.

December 19, 2018

The flower can always be changing, by Shawna Lemay

“All summer long, flowers. And all winter long the path through the garden is inward. A time to learn to be awake to the flowers within. What is there to fear? I’ve come to understand the souls is a flower with which to bless the world.” —”All Summer Long Flowers”

The flowers were indeed always changing, but the book was the same, this book that came into my life in April, The Flower Can Always Be Changing, by Shawna Lemay, the week before the crocuses bloomed. and it has sat by my bedside ever since. I’ve read it twice, a little at a time, as befits a collection of brief essays. It’s not a diary exactly, but it reads like one, the essays guided by the seasons. The collection’s title inspired by Woolf’s own diary, a line she wrote as she was writing, The Waves: “A lamp and a flower pot in the centre. The flower can always be changing.” 

The meaning a bit obscure to me—but when is Woolf ever not? Thinking about the way that a flower is always different as it blooms and then decays, and then turns into a different flower altogether. Lemay writes about “grocery store flowers,” although I prefer the convenience store variety, how the tulip becomes an iris becomes a gerbera becomes and dahlia, and so on. 

I first met Shawna Lemay though her blog, although it was a different blog than the blog she has now, a blog called Calm Things. Which was connected to her book of the same title, essays about living with an artist, with art, about still lives. As with Woolf, always a bit obscure. The meaning can always be changing. 

And blogs have informed Lemay’s work so much, this book included, a chronicle of dailiness, of routine, of interruptions to that routine. A record of noticings, of shifts in how the light falls. “Align yourself to the poetry of the everyday.” 

Lemay’s blog two blogs ago was called “Capacious Hold-All” (which was a reference to how Woolf had described her diary; Lemay is also author of the purse-inspired novel Rumi and Red Handbag), and The Flower is similarly structured. Essays like posts, titles such as, “A Few Things About Working in a Library.” Others like axioms, jokes, one-liners, answers to questions, lists. She writes about experiencing Bell’s Palsy, about reading and writing, about being a writer, about what people expect of you when you’re a writer, versus who you really are. She shares lines from poetry and fiction. “Keep Your Solitude” begins, “At the end of Mrs. Dalloway, the discussion between Sally and Peter is about how it’s possible to know people.” “Civilized” starts with, “They had yet to unfriend each other on Facebook.” And indeed, these essays weave between preoccupations online and off it. For Lemay, the internet fuels her creativity, and is as much a part of her practice as the flowers. 

I’ve been wanting to write about this book, because it’s strange and beautiful, and I’ve carried it with me all these months, since the flowers started blooming. But it’s been hard to do so, because as the book is slow and thoughtful, so has been my engagement with it. Even now that I’ve finished reading it a second time, I’m not about to put it up on my shelf, to put it away yet. I’m going to keep it by my bedside instead, for dipping in and out, because every time I open it, I seem to find something perfect and new. 

Book Cover, The Flower Can Always Be Changing, by Shawna Lemay

“I want to say that what makes me beautiful is I know how to endure the deep winter and how when the snow falls it changes my soul. I want to say winter strengthens me but I know the grocery store flowers are the only reason I make it through.” —”Transcendance”  

December 5, 2018

New Books on the Radio

I just can’t stop with the 2018 new releases, but one after another continues to wow me, so I’m very pleased by the opportunity to talk about five more of them this morning on my CBC Ontario Morning books column. You can listen again here—I come on at 41.30.

December 3, 2018

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page, is a novel so good that last night I was full of nostalgia because it had been a whole week since I was reading it. And I was reading a very good novel last night too, but still, I was sorry to have been a whole seven days away from the remarkable experience of having been absorbed in Page’s award-winning book, which I read in two two-hour sittings. It’s the story of a marriage, the story loosely inspired by letters between Page’s own parents, some of which actually appear in the novel, making authorship an interesting collaborative endeavour. Beginning with the birth of Harry Miles, who grows up between the wars in London, the reader aware of the inevitability of his trajectory toward battle himself. But first, Harry meets Evelyn on the steps of the Battersea Library, and they fall in love with the same urgency as the world’s preparation for war, another kind of unreality. They spent most of the first years of their marriage apart, as Harry takes part in training and departs for war in North Africa. Seemingly-pivotal scenes—their wedding, Evelyn’s first pregnancy, the birth of their daughter—take place outside the narrative while Page focusses on the quotidian instead, the ordinary dailiness that Harry so longs for when he is away at war and longing for his wife.

And long for her he does, resisting temptation from other women when he’s far from home, and when he returns and settles into civilian life, the attraction between them is still strong. It’s not that this is a love poorly thought out, marry in haste, etc, but rather that life is long and love is complicated. And what is so astounding about the novel is how Page manages to show that complicatedness without compromising either of her characters. She shows how love and marriage can turn into something else as husband and wife continue to become more and more themselves as they age. It’s not that Evelyn changes—it’s that she never does. That strong personality that Harry continues to admire in his wife for so many years becomes a force that eventually pushes him out of his home, and the force is devastating—and yet he still continues to love her. And Evelyn herself, who is indeed herself but to a fault, and how her character traits borne out of struggle and deprivation during her childhood eventually leave her utterly alone. No wrenches need be thrown into this plot line, is what I mean. Or maybe what I mean is that that’s just what life is, a wrench. And characters themselves are just along for the ride, for better or for worse.

Dear Evelyn has a wonderful, effortless sweep, moving its characters from their hearty youth on to their nineties, including just the right details to show how the world is changing around them. Here, the novel benefits from Page’s experience as a short story writer, which is reflected in the novel’s episodic structure, the ease with which it moves from scene-to-scene and accumulates story without becoming bogged down. Short story writers are expert at efficiently fitting big ideas into small packages, which is how—in just 300 pages—Page is able to contain a century; two wars; two fully realized, flawed and complicated people; a rich and tumultuous marriage; so much love; and the pride, rage and resentment that keeps so much from ever being properly expressed.

November 28, 2018

A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult

“Oh my gosh, does Jodi Picoult ever know how to write a novel,” I said to my husband the other night on the tail end of having read her latest in a single day. But of course she does, having written twenty-three of them, and has a reputation for bestsellerdom as well as a penchant for melodrama. I’d started one of her novels years ago—I think it was Nineteen Minutes, about a school shooting, and decided it wasn’t for me, and I actually hadn’t given Jodi Picoult a lot of consideration since…until A Spark of Light, set against a hostage taking at a Mississippi abortion clinic. And we all know there is nothing I’m more interested in than a good pop-culture abortion narrative, so I put this book on hold at the library, and it turns out that now I know what everybody else knows, which is Jodi Picoult is really extraordinary.

Obviously, her narrative being constructed around a hostage stand0ff, Picoult’s melodramatic bent continues, and I was wary of her reputation “for writing about both sides of polarizing issues.” Frankly, we’ve got far too much of “both sides-dom” going on in our discourse at the moment, which results in justifications for fascists being given wide-platforms, sympathy for white nationalists, and slow, terrifying and far from grass-roots growth of the anti-abortion movement in Canada. Now is hardly the time to stand on the middle, to sit on the fence, etc, instead at this dangerous political moment it’s more important to take a stand than ever, to draw a line.

The thing is, of course, that abortion isn’t actually polarizing after all, and the only people who might suppose it is are the people who’ve only ever considered abortion in the abstract or as a thought-exercise. But for those of us with lived experience of abortion and those who perform abortions as part of their medical practice, abortion is very much a space in between, where women who have abortions tend to be mothers already, where almost all abortions after 12 weeks are for very much wanted pregnancies whose severe and unviable fetal abnormalities, where women who miscarry and have abortions are sometimes the same women, where women who have abortions go on to have the families they wanted when they’re ready for it—and where “pro-life” women can find themselves on the other side of the debate when they’re faced with complicated or unwanted pregnancies. As Picoult writes in her novel’s Author’s Note: “Laws are black and white, The lives of women are a thousand shades of grey.”

And she shows so many of those shades in A Spark of Light, which begins with a paragraph on how Mississippi abortion clinics had had so many restrictions placed upon them (“the halls had to be wide enough to accommodate two passing gurneys; any clinic where that wasn’t the case had to shut down or spend thousands of dollars on reconstruction…”) so that those remained were rare as unicorns. On the periphery of the novel is a young girl who was unable to obtain an abortion due to age restrictions and other legal hoops to jump through so  that she ended up administering a pill ordered from the internet, and when she’s brought to the hospital after bleeding profusely, police are called and she’s arrested for murder. The pregnant women in the clinic when the gunman breaks in are from all kinds of different backgrounds and in various situations, and some of them aren’t pregnant, because abortion is only one kind of health care administered by women’s health clinics. And what I loved most about the novel is that even the characters who aren’t pregnant or haven’t had abortions have had their lives touched issues of reproductive justice—sometimes without even knowing it, which is often the case in a society where things like rape, women’s sexuality and abortion are taboo.

The novel was gripping, and here is where I saw Jodi Picoult’s plotting prowess in action—the twists kept coming right to the end. And the novel is set in reverse chronological order, even, which makes the twists at the end all the most astounding from a craft standpoint, and none of them were cheap either—I really appreciated that. The characters were rich and fully developed, and this is where the novel was wonderfully challenging to me, in how Picoult humanizes a character who’s actually a pro-life protestor gone undercover to record illegal practices inside the clinic (she doesn’t find any, btw) when the gunman arrives. It turns out not to be about “both sides,” but instead understanding one’s humanity and motivations, in making characters real and multi-faceted, and learning where someone is coming from. Which doesn’t mean they’re right, and Jodi Picoult shows that they’re definitely not (fact: the best way to limit abortion is to have liberal abortion laws, access to birth control and sexual education. fact: making abortion illegal drives abortion underground and puts women at risk. fact: there has been abortion everywhere and always. fact: opposition to abortion is fundamentally an opposition to women’s sexuality). It remains ever important for us to listen to and learn from each other.

This is the kind of novel that can change the world, because if it challenged my ideas about abortion, it will also challenge the mindset of someone whose ideas are different, to consider other points of view. To bridge a divide that grows ever wider as we all sit convinced of our righteousness, without considering that someone on the other side feels just as righteous as we do. (Picoult doesn’t include male pro-life activists in the novel, who are the more typical demographic actually. I suspect that she knows that their motivations and backstories are less interesting than their women counterparts, that they have less to teach us in this situation.) It’s also just a thoroughly terrific read with great characters and plotting, and facts and current events while not being too heavy on the research, and really good writing, apart from one unfortunate paragraph where a father makes a twist on that “one’s child being your heart outside your body” idea to talk about a child being like a soap bubble you carry on your palm while you run through an obstacle course, or something like that. But let us forgive the novel that has just one terrible simile, especially if it does all the other incredible things. After twenty-three novels, Jodi Picoult knows what she’s doing.

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