Book Talk: *The Sparrow,* by Mary Doria Russell (Read-Along Wrap-Up)

Disclosure: This book is part of my personal library and was purchased several years ago. I read it for the second time.

Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books (1997), Paperback (Reprint) (ISBN 0449912558 / 9780449912553)
Fiction, 448 pages

Opening Lines
(from the Prologue): “It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration, and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples; indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration.”

(From Chapter 1): “On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spìrito, a few minutes’ walk across St. Peter’s Square from the Vatican. The next day, ignoring shouted questions and howls of journalistic outrage as he read, a Jesuit spokesman issued a short statement to the frustrated and angry media mob that had gathered outside Number 5’s massive front door.”

Book Description: The Sparrow takes you on a journey to a distant planet and to the center of the human soul. It is the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a twenty-first-century scientific mission to a newly discovered extraterrestrial culture. Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, hardship and death, but nothing can prepare them for the civilization they encounter, or for the tragic misunderstanding that brings the mission to a catastrophic end. Once considered a living saint, Sandoz returns alone to Earth physically and spiritually maimed, the mission’s sole survivor–only to be accused of heinous crimes and blamed for the mission’s failure.

Comments: There aren’t many books that I’m an evangelist for. I’ll tell you what I like, and I’ll make suggestions and recommendations, but I don’t often state outright that “You HAVE to read this.” I will go out on that limb for The Sparrow, though. You have to read this.

As I said in our Read-Along Discussion a couple of weeks ago, this is a very hard book to pigeonhole. You may not care for science fiction; this is SF free of technobabble. While the primary plot concerns interplanetary exploration and first contact with a non-human species in another solar system, the focus is on character and the setting doesn’t require contortion of the imagination. You may be wary of fiction with religious overtones; this novel prominently features several Jesuit priests among its characters, but the last thing it does is preach. The novel explores Big Ideas of faith and God and humanity and Meaning in the way that many of us would – in far-ranging conversations with friends – and doesn’t beat you over the head with them. You’d never guess that this is Mary Doria Russell’s first novel (previously, she wrote scientific articles and technical manuals); the writing is very accomplished, and yet it doesn’t call attention to itself at all. What other arguments can I shoot down for you?

One thing that recently provoked a conversation with my Read-Along co-hosts was how much Russell tells the reader in the early chapters of the book. After a radio telescope picked up transmissions that resembled music from somewhere near Alpha Centauri, an expedition to find out more about where they came from was facilitated by the Jesuits. Something very bad happened there, and only one member of the party was left to return to Earth. That survivor, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been deeply wounded in every possible way, and resists his order’s efforts to understand what happened on the planet Rakhat. Having believed that he and his fellow expeditioners had been drawn there by God, Emilio can’t fully understand it himself.

Knowing all of this fairly early in the game doesn’t lessen the novel’s dramatic tension one bit, or blunt the impact of the full revelations that Russell eventually makes. When I reached the end of The Sparrow, I was drained – and I had read the book once before! That’s just how masterful Russell’s writing is.

And while Russell’s plot will certainly hold your attention, it’s the fully-realized characters she has created that bring you through it. The characters have stuck with me during the five years since I first read The Sparrow, and I was once again struck by how vividly drawn they were. The dialogue and interaction between them feels absolutely true to life, even when they’re discussing questions of belief or problems of engineering, and I love the way Russell has given them humor. My favorite character is Dr. Anne Edwards, brilliant and blunt, with astronomer Jimmy Quinn, “discoverer” of Rakhat, a close second. Emilio Sandoz – priest, linguist, cultural explorer, perpetrator or victim of a tragic misunderstanding – is absolutely central to the story, but I did find him enigmatic at times and therefore harder to embrace than some of the other characters. I wonder if that was Russell’s intention. However, what’s especially striking to me is that while not all of the characters are necessarily likable, I think she has rendered them all sympathetically – even the non-human ones.

I tend to have some trouble visualizing imaginary species. That’s one reason I tend to get my science fiction and fantasy from movies and TV instead of books, and despite Russell’s strong descriptions, I don’t have a strong sense of what the Runa and Jana’ata natives of Rakhat are supposed to look like…but I’m not sure it matters. Russell does convey that they’re clearly different from humans, while she also explores the ways in which they’re not so alien.

The Sparrow is a page-turner that will make you think critically, make you feel deeply…and make you want to talk about it, which is why we built a Read-Along around it. That event wraps up today with reviews posted by our participants, leading off at The Book Lady’s Blog. I hope you’ll check out their impressions too, if you need further convincing that you have to read this!

The story of Emilio Sandoz and the planet Rakhat continues in Children of God, with further exploration of the VaRakhati. I’ve taken that one off the shelf in hopes of re-reading it later this year – do any of you Read-Along’ers have similar plans?

Rating: 5/5 (but because it was a re-read, it is ineligible to be considered for my 2010 Book of the Year)

Many, many thanks to Heather and Rebecca for agreeing to co-host The Sparrow Read-Along with me! Thanks also to everyone who joined us. I hope those of you who were revisiting this book found something new in it this time around – I know I did. If you were just discovering The Sparrow, I’m glad you chose to do that with us, and I’m eager to know your thoughts about it!

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