Book review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is a commendable effort

Small Great Things, which deals with race and prejudice, plays out like an extended version of the TV series Law and Order.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. Courtesy Penguin Random House
Powered by automated translation

When international bestselling author Jodi Picoult began work on Small Great Things, she could not possibly have predicted quite how timely her novel about racism and prejudice in the United States would be.

After all, she started writing it in the mid-1990s, but could not find the right voice at that time. As she admits in the author’s note: “I couldn’t do justice to the topic, somehow. I didn’t know what it was like to grow up black in this country.”

It took a 2012 news article about an African-American nurse who helped to deliver a child born to white-supremacist parents – and was, incredibly, told not to touch the baby – for Picoult to return to the subject. She did a lot of research into race and, goodness, does it show. This is definitely Picoult’s “Important Novel on Big Issues”.

Small Great Things is also the writer to a T, however: an accessible, page-turning author at the top of her heart-rending game.

Spinning out from the real-life case, midwife Ruth has to intervene when the baby of racist couple Turk and Brittany develops breathing difficulties – and ends up facing criminal charges when medical procedures do not go to plan.

Cue the kind of courtroom drama Picoult revels in. Ruth’s public defender, Kennedy, is the author’s concerns writ-large: a well-intentioned middle-class white woman completely secure in her family unit, blissfully unaware that her privilege makes her prejudiced.

Small Great Things doesn't really deal in nuance, but the chapters written from the perspectives of Ruth, Kennedy and Turk explore and explain their motivations rather than simply making villains or victims out of the characters. It is a device that really works.

In fact, Small Great Things plays out like an extended version of the TV series Law and Order – although the hit US legal drama would never countenance the book's ridiculous plot twist. The novel concludes with characters (and readers) very much having been on a "journey", but the final means to get to this moment of reckoning is awful.

So no, it is not quite the "21st Century To Kill a Mockingbird" that the novel's publicity would have you believe it is. It is not even the best novel on race and prejudice in America this year – that accolade goes to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.

Still, Jodi Picoult knows that a 50-year old white woman can never pretend to chronicle the black experience like White-head can.

Instead, her novel is a commendable effort that asks her mainly white audience to think just a little more deeply about their prejudices in the febrile political and social atmosphere of the US, and beyond, in 2016.