15 Nov 2020

Jodi Picoult's new novel the 'perfect pandemic book'

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 15 November 2020

New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult admits she was initially terrified about publishing her new novel, The Book of Two Ways, during a pandemic.

But this novel — her 27th — has rejigged itself in her mind to become what she believes is the “perfect pandemic book”.

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Photo: Supplied / Rainer Hosch

The main character in the book, Dawn, survives a plane crash and has a ‘what if?’ moment — does she return to her husband and family, or go to Egypt and reconnect with an old flame?

“When my husband was reading it, he started banging pots and pans around in the kitchen, he was really angry, and I said ‘what is your problem?’ And he said ‘well, you seem to have a lot to say about married love’.

“I burst out laughing and said: ‘haven’t you figured out you’re both Wyatt and Brian in this book?”

Dawn is a death doula, someone who helps usher people at the end of life out of the world.

“I’ve kind of made a career writing about the things that people are afraid to talk about, and death is the granddaddy of them all.

“Talking about death doesn’t kill you anymore than talking about sex makes you pregnant," Picoult says.

The Book of Two Ways takes its name from an ancient Egyptian funerary text, she says.

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Photo: Supplied

She encountered it when her son, an Egyptologist, came home from Yale with a book he was translating.

“I walked past him knowing nothing about it and said that’s a great name for a novel.”

Intrigued, she began to delve deeper into the book.

“It is an ancient Egyptian funerary text that was found in the coffins of nobles,” she says. “It’s the first known map of the afterlife.”

In the book, which was placed beneath the body, is a diagram.

“There are two lines a wavy black line and a wavy blue line with a red rectangle in between them and that’s a lake of fire that separates this water route in blue and this land route in black.

“The idea is as long as you have all the right information, which is written in spells in hieroglyphs all around the coffin, you can take either the water route or the land route and you are going to end up in the Field of Offerings which is the ancient Egyptian version of Heaven.”

She says she loved metaphor that whichever route you take you will end up in the right place.

“So, I structured story where you have two narratives side-by-side with two different decisions. One where Dawn survives a plane crash and goes back to Boston, the water route, to her husband and her daughter.

“And one where she survives the plane crash and chooses instead to go on to Egypt to reconnect with an old flame who is an Egyptologist there.”

It’s a book about the eternal question — what if?

“I would ask people [at book readings] to close their eyes and think about the person they thought they’d be with and then, I would ‘say 95 percent of you are not imagining who you are going home to tonight’.

“I think that’s really fascinating, even if we are happy we always do wonder, 'what if?'"

Who you are is the accumulation of all the choices we’ve already made, so the what if question is fallacious, she says.

“You can’t just hop timelines, but that doesn’t keep us from wondering.”

She visited the tombs of middle Egypt while researching the book which she found were decorated with pictures of things the dead person loved.

“I love that after 4000 years we are still asking the question; how do I have a good death? And the answer is still the same, by making sure that you have a good life.”

The book is the “perfect pandemic book”, she says. “Because we are all wondering what the world what be like if this hadn’t happened. We are all suffering from losses.

“In a way I think The Book of Two Ways functions as a guidebook through a very fraught time when we are all imagining the world we didn’t get.”