‘There is a fire raging, and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it’
Back in the summer, a courier unexpectedly gave me an envelope. It contained an unsolicited, mysterious book from publisher Hodder & Stoughton. The book had a black back cover and spine, and a front cover vertically divided into a back half and a white half. Curiously, it had no title, and it had no author. There was only an intriguing hashtag on the spine, in lieu of title : #canyoureadwithoutprejudice. The back cover had the following words on it :
We want you to immerse yourself in this dazzling novel, free from any preconceptions that a cover, title or author can bring. We ask you simply to #readwithoutpredudice.
The front cover had the following words
There are two points in life when we are all equal : At the moment of birth And at the moment of death. It is how we live between that defines us.
So…I found this an irresistible proposition. We almost never DO read without prejudice. We are drawn to an author unknown to us generally because we have heard something about the book chosen. Someone, whether a friend, or another author, or a print or internet review, will have given us conceptions to go by. Or maybe it is a cover, which suggests a book will have a certain tone, style, and may suggest something about the particular qualities of the book.
I freely admit to being extremely prejudiced about covers – I am drawn to covers which suggest some sort of literary quality: they often have a kind of symbolic feel to them, rather than obviously giving clues to content : this suggests to me that there will be a subtlety and depth in writing. ‘Loud’ graphic covers provoke a kind of distaste in me, and rightly or wrongly my assumption is that they will be poorly written, ‘pulp’ fiction.
So………the prospect of a read where I had nothing to guide my reading ship, and I would just have to boldly go, was not one to turn down.
The words on the front suggested, perhaps, this was going to be some kind of magic realist novel, perhaps something mystical/philosophical – Paulo Cuelho territory? I really had no idea
However, the chapter heading suggested something different. It was called stage one, Early Labor (aha! The author was American!) and had the following quote :
Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are
Ruth Jefferson has been a labo(u)r and delivery nurse for more than twenty years. A highly respected, highly qualified, and exceptionally skilful one, both with the medical side and with the therapeutic relationship itself, dealing with the terrors and sometimes the tragedies of the birthing experience as well as its joys, with the expectant family members
Nevertheless Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany take exception to Ruth when she is assigned to carry out the post-delivery check-up on their new baby, Davis. They insist that Ruth shall not have any involvement in Davis’ care, and the hospital duly affix a note to the baby’s medical notes.
A medical emergency happens for Davis, and Ruth is the only person in the room when his breathing fails. What is she to do? Disobey her hospital’s instructions and take immediate action which might save Davis before the emergency medical team arrive? Do nothing?
This is the first dilemma
Little Davis dies as a result of the emergency
Potentially, the hospital itself might face a lawsuit for negligence. Instead, it is Ruth who faces the charge of negligence, and is suspended, pending investigation.
Far worse is to happen, as a criminal prosecution is filed against Ruth. The charge will be murder and involuntary manslaughter.
What on earth has happened here? Why have the Bauers insisted that Ruth Jefferson not be allowed to touch their new born baby? And why did the hospital accede to that request, when Jefferson’s twenty year record is not only impeccable, but exceptional?
Turk and Brittany Bauer are White Supremacists. Ruth Jefferson is Black.
Baby Bauer’s case note instructions stated: No African American Personnel to Care For This Patient.
Ruth is the only African American nurse.
All my life I have promised…that if you work hard, and do well, you will earn your place. I’ve said that we are not impostors, that what we strive for and get, we deserve. What I neglected to tell…was that at any moment, these achievements might still be yanked away
This book explores, obviously, not just the story of the specific individuals : Ruth, the Bauers, Ruth’s defence lawyer, Kennedy, but prejudice, particularly racial prejudice, not merely the prejudice which far right extremists espouse, but prejudice ingrained, inbuilt within the way a society functions. And does this within the form of a cracking, page-turning thriller
I am struggling to find a way to make him believe that in spite of this, we have to put one foot in front of the other every day and pray it will be better the next time the sun rises. That if our legacy is not entitlement, it must be hope.
Because if it’s not, then we become the shiftless, the wandering, the conquered. We become what they think we are.
Although I had no idea who the writer was, (never revealed in the book, not even in the interesting afterword) I was aware of the ball-park the writer came from. They were, I thought, female, and were not a literary writer, but a writer of populist fiction who did this well. And I thought this book was done very well. The reader is constantly finding that characters, all characters, have their own perceptions and beliefs challenged. As do readers. Unconscious prejudices against ‘other’ exist in all of us, and what this book does well is make readers – who may well believe they are ‘without prejudice’ realise how deeply prejudice may lie.
I read this in early summer, and found it a deeply unsettling, challenging, thought provoking read. How much more disturbing and chilling it seems now, as we head towards the possibility of a Presidential election which could deliver extremity into power. How much more disturbing and chilling it seems now, with the rise of what is called ‘Populist Politics’ And how terrifying that populism is retrograde, reactionary, fear-and-anger driven, hate driven.
Small Great Things is due to be published on 11th October in the States, but not until 22nd November in the UK. By which time we will know which way ‘populism’ happened in America itself
The quote at the review head is from the author’s afterword
I think this is an important book, with uncomfortable, challenging things to say. My sense that the book was written by a fine writer who nonetheless did not feel like a ‘literary’ writer came from the fact that as complex as she allows the ideas to be (and she does) and as complex as she allows the characters to be (and she does) something in the author’s voice prevents me from being taken inside characters.
So I am also left thinking further about just what is it that leads me to think something is literary fiction – it’s not just about ‘do I think this is a good book’ or not – there are books which clearly ARE literary fiction but might not be good ones! (in my opinion)
What do you think defines literary fiction?
It was this book that had me creating the category Contemporary Fiction, because I had nowhere I could properly assign it. I have added the category to several earlier books – including some which are also, clearly, literary (all of Patrick Flanery’s for example) though I see Amazon has him listed in their rankings for books as Contemporary only and has this one listed in both Literary and Contemporary! My personal definition for this new category is that the book is saying something quite definitely and consciously about the wider contemporary society it is set in, and is not purely about the specific characters the story is about, but that, in some ways, they are ‘containers’ for that wider society. Perhaps the big difference for me with Literary which is also Contemporary is that whilst I am for sure aware with Flanery, that his characters ‘contain’ each of them is far more than that, so that unique, recognisable individuality and voice is what hits first, and what they represent is equally integral.
I shall be intrigued to hear the views of those who read, or have already read this book. Literary? Contemporary? Literary Contemporary? Legal thriller? All of those things?
For sure, Picoult made me think long and hard about all sorts of things, which generally only lit-fic does, but, still I don’t quite think this is.