Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, published November 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton.
Read: June 2017
Genre: Adult Fiction/Contemporary/Issues
Get It Now: Wordery
Goodreads Synopsis: 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.
Small Great Things is about prejudice and power; it is about that which divides and unites us.
I’m a MASSIVE Picoult fan, and her latest novel did not disappoint.
Picoult typically writes what I call “issues” books – she writes about the human experience with a focus on difficult issues, such as the Holocaust (The Storyteller), Asperger’s Syndrome (House Rules), and Brittle Bone Syndrome (Handle With Care). Her latest novel, Small Great Things, tackles modern-day racism and the resurgence of support for the Nazi movement (also know as Alt-Right), and I feel that with this one, she took a risk.
#ownvoices is a trend that is gathering support and momentum, and for good reason. It’s widely known that minority groups are under-represented in publishing, and this movement aims to promote and recognise works that discuss minority issues, written by authors from those communities. However, it has been getting a hard time lately as some seem to think it is promoting those books over works by authors not from those communities regardless of their quality. This is not the case, and this book is a prime example of that.
There are two aspects to this review – how well the book and story-line was written, and how successful Picoult was in managing the sensitive conversation regarding race. As far as the book itself – it’s standard Picoult at her best – the story is fast-paced, the courtroom scenes are dramatic, and there are a few twists up her sleeve. This novel was very well written, with clearly a considerable amount of research, and it comes at a very significant time given the current global political climate.
Now for the race element – as I am not a person of colour I really can’t comment on how accurate Picoult has been in her character portrayals. It certainly felt genuine, but there were some characterisations I felt were a little stereotypical (Adisa), and a little contrived to meet the needs of the plot (Ruth). I haven’t seen anyone else mention this, but there was also a character (Wallace Mercy) who seemed to be a carbon copy of Johnnie Cochran from the OJ Simpson trial (intentional or not, I’m not sure).
No doubt Picoult took on a lot with this book, tackling a lot of nuanced issues within one story-line, and I feel that she was in the difficult position of being damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. Topics touched on include colourism, discrimination, segregation, passive racism, the welfare system, “authentic blackness”, and race and the justice system. A monumental task for any author. In her review for The New York Times, professor and author Roxanne Gay likened this to race bingo. I can see her point, but equally I feel Picoult would have been criticised for not covering the bases had she chosen not to discuss a particular topic.
Picoult directly addresses her reasons for wanting to write this novel, her intentions, and acknowledges her position of white privilege, in a note to the reader at the back of the book. It’s clear that she is aware of the difficulties of the subject matter, and I do think that in order for her to tell this story, she perhaps felt she had to make sure not to cause offence or appear to be ignorant, which (at least according to Gay) may have resulted in a degree of in-authenticity.
Ultimately, Picoult’s aim was to draw attention to race inequality and discrimination, particularly in a legal system that shys away from even acknowledging that such problems exist, and in this she was successful. This is not a comfortable book – and that’s the point. It challenged me personally, and made me address my own views as well as highlighting the consistent intrinsic and passive racism that still exits today. If you’re going in to this book thinking blatant racism is a subject relegated to History books, you will have your eyes opened.
““What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
““Active racism is telling a nurse supervisor that an African American nurse can’t touch your baby. It’s snickering at a black joke. But passive racism? It’s noticing there’s only one person of colour in your office and not asking your boss why. It’s reading your kid’s fourth-grade curriculum and seeing that the only black history covered is slavery, and not questioning why. It’s defending a woman in court whose indictment directly resulted from her race…and glossing over that fact, like it hardly matters.”
“You say you don’t see colour…but that’s all you see. You’re so hyper-aware of it, and of trying to look like you aren’t prejudiced, you can’t even understand that when you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what it’s like to be put down because of the colour of my skin.”
“That’s because racism isn’t just about hate. We all have biases, even if don’t think we do. It’s because racism is also about who has power…and who has access to it.”
Have you read Small Great Things? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!