I’m forever hearing people talk about how Picoult is such a talented writer, but I’d never read any of her work myself. Of course, I was highly aware of the hype surrounding My Sister’s Keeper, but I had never got round to reading one of Picoult’s titles myself. I’d been meaning to read Small Great Things for ages, having heard Dolly and Pandora discuss the novel on The High Low, praising Picoult for her work, and I finally got around to it this week.
I was astounded by how much this book made me feel. With race at the heart of this narrative, Picoult forces the reader to consider how racial prejudice is interwoven into and perpetuated by everyday life – as much as we wish it wasn’t. Picoult invites the reader to consider the ways in which we discriminate, even subconsciously, through the character of Kennedy. She’s someone who wants to help, but has to come to terms with her own ignorance before she is able to do so. Representing Kennedy alongside such explicit a representation of prejudice demonstrates the sheer scale at which white privilege operates. The contrast shows that you don’t necessarily have to believe in such prejudice to play a role in its perpetuation.
When I first began reading the book, I didn’t believe that it could be set in the 21st Century – characters’ attitudes were so antiquated. Subtle time indicators (Frozen being the most memorable) revealed that these ludicrous, old-fashioned beliefs still existed, despite having, supposedly, come so far. These indicators, along with the fact that Picoult had painstakingly researched everything to which she made reference- from medical terms to legal terms and everything in between- it was clear that she was aware of the gravity of what she was attempting as an author.
I felt furious pity for Rose and everyone she represents at all points of the narrative, embarrassed that this story has been, and still is, so many people’s reality. Her insistence on testifying, on having her voice heard, even if it means doing herself an injustice demonstrates the helplessness of those that don’t fit into the narrative of what is ‘right’ in a conservative, white, Western culture. Kennedy’s discouragement of her doing so is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to representing the contradiction in which those in a position to make a change live.
Throughout the narrative, it’s never clear how the trial will end. Even when it does conclude, it’s not satisfying, for the principle reason that, even though this battle is over for Rose, the longer-term war is still ongoing. Picoult doesn’t pretend to have found a solution to these thousands of years of prejudice, which did leave me feeling a little uneasy, but the reality of the matter is that, heartbreakingly, there is not yet a solution.
I understand that I read the book, and am writing this, from an position of immense privilege, but I believe that texts such as Small Great Things play a vital role in opening up discussion about discrimination- be that racial, sexual or otherwise. While one could criticise Picoult for broaching such an issue from her position of privilege, I don’t believe that she was doing it to make any kind of point or to present herself as ‘woke’, rather I believe that Small Great Things was written to add another voice and more noise in the discussion that the society in which we live is really not as forward thinking as we all like to believe.
I would recommend Small Great Things to anyone. Not only does it encourage conversation about issues that are too often overlooked and brushed aside – in both literature and daily life –it is so brilliantly written. While a more conclusive ending would have been more satisfying, I believe it would have undermined everything that Picoult had attempted to do to that point: demonstrate the hypocrisy and injustice that is prejudice.