Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review: "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

Astronomers studying the Alpha Centauri system pick up a broadcast of unearthly music, finally putting the existence of alien civilizations beyond down. While government and scientists debate, private organizations take action. The first mission to contact an alien race is led by representatives of the Jesuit Order.

Years later, the sole survivor of the mission to Rakhat is retrieved from an alien brothel: bizarrely mutilated and, by his own admission, a murderer.

Father Emilio Sandoz's survival is as miraculous as it is inconvenient. The media demands answers of the Jesuits, outraged by the behavior of their representatives and the civil war they sparked among the peaceful alien society they discovered. To preserve the reputation of their disgraced order, the Father General of the Society of Jesus must force Sandoz to speak. No one, least of all Sandoz, is prepared for his confession.


The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: pass?
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, rape, reference to child prostitution, cannibalism, suicidal thinking
Overall Response: I am devastated and become something new.


More Thoughts: I don't have a category for The Sparrow. It defies classification and shatters my petty little rating system. Mary Doria Russell doesn't just write a successful story--she succeeds on a level I didn't know was possible. 

Until this book, I assumed there were limits on the reactions an author could instill in their readers. But Russell conveys a sensation I thought was beyond any writer's ability: the experience of genuine rapture. Never again can I read a description of a character "feeling overwhelmed." At no point does Russell announce that the events of her story are amazing (!!!) There is no need. The reader is swept irresistibly up into delight and wonder alongside the characters.

And then into grief.
He had discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.
Because of this, it's difficult for me even to summarize the novel. Mostly, I have resorted to saying "It's about Jesuits in space," waiting for the bewildered laughter to die down, and then saying "Just read it."

You see, dear reader, I can tell you what "happens" in The Sparrow without difficulty. Just as the Father General and the media can know the bare, physical facts of what happened to the crew of the Stella Maris, and still not understand. Emilio Sandoz's reluctant confession never contradicts the charges laid against him. But the events are not the story.

One does not read The Sparrow. One lives it, for however many hours or days or weeks it takes to finish reading. You share the highs and the lows, the hopes and the heartbreak, the agony and the ecstasy. You have never known friends you would rather go into lifelong, unthinkable exile alongside until Anne and George Edwards and D.W. Yarborough. You cry Soy solo on that bloody night on Rakhat's shores. Your heart races as you put your hand into the tiny, flower-scented hand of an alien child for the first time. And then, like Emilio Sandoz, you are left staring at your ravaged and empty hands, wondering what it all is for: whether you were led to this by God's deliberate plan (in which case, God is to be hated) or whether you deluded yourself and, so doing, brought all of this devastation upon yourself (in which case, you are to be despised above any person who ever lived.)

Russell herself puts it well enough: "What happens to Emilio Sandoz is a holocaust writ small. He survives, but loses everyone. Now he has to live in its aftermath."

Contrary to what you might think, The Sparrow is not religious fiction. It is certainly about religious characters (both Jesuit and Jewish, along with a few atheists) and about what their faith leads them to do. The difference is that in religious fiction, the existence of a (cooperative, fictionalized) God is confirmed on the page, through clear visions or direct mental dialogue with the characters in response to their prayers. Confirmation through narratorial fiat. In The Sparrow, no such tidy answers are supplied by the text. The characters are--like us, dear reader--left to make their own decisions about faith and purpose, without timely intervention by an author-puppeteered deity.

Because of this, I recommend it to you, dear reader, regardless of your personal beliefs. It is not necessary to share the characters' faith (or doubts) to empathize with their questions: does my suffering serve any purpose?

--Actually, I do hesitate to recommend the book to those of you who are more accustomed to religious fiction, who might find the contents distressing. The Sparrow is about very ordinary people, who often swear, and sometimes debate celibacy vs. marriage in cheerfully crude terms. Now, I've also read books about ostensibly religious characters that wallow in Gritty Sordid Truths for the sheer ugliness of it. This is not that book. This is a warm and gentle and beautiful book about the terrible things that can happen if you let all of your defenses down. But it still may not be to everyone's taste.
"Where was the poetry in Alan's death, Emilio?" 
"God knows," he said, and there was in his tone both an admission of defeat and a statement of faith. 
"See, that's where it falls apart for me!" Anne cried. "What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can't swallow that kind of theological candy. Either God's in charge or he's not. What did you do when the babies died, Emilio?" 
"I cried," he admitted. "I think sometimes that God needs us to cry His tears." There was a long silence. "And I tried to understand." 
"And now? Do you understand?" There was, almost, a note of pleading in her voice. If he told her he did, she'd have believed him. Anne wished that someone could explain this to her and if anyone she knew could explain such things, it might be Emilio Sandoz. "Can you find any poetry in babies dying now?" 
"No," he said at last. Then he added, "Not yet. Some poetry is tragic. It is perhaps harder to appreciate."
The book is light on the science fiction scale, sketching out technological advances just enough to suspend disbelief. (There is some unintentional comedy in how Russell, writing in 1996, expected fashion to develop by 2015.) Don't let that scare you off, non-sci-fi fans.

On a purely compositional level, the book takes place in two timelines: the present day, as the Jesuit Order tries to mend Sandoz's health and mental state enough for him to stand trial; and the events that brought the members of the Stella Maris mission together. The dates given at the head of each chapter give the reader guideposts, and also a sense of how space travel affects time--since the mission which takes Sandoz a few months spans decades back on Earth.

If my references to emotional devastation haven't been enough of a warning, let me repeat them here: The Sparrow will lift you up, but in bloody pieces. At various points, the book delves into child prostitution, rape, murder, cannibalism, suicide, and mutilation. Russell does not release these horrors from Pandora's box for shock value, but to grapple with the despair and self-loathing at their heart. It is not without humor, it is not without joy, but it is a rough read. It is, for all that, a glorious read, and I use that in the most old-fashioned way possible.

I bought a copy of The Sparrow the day I finished reading the library copy, if that tells you anything. Normally, I wait until the end of the year to make a book list. Save something for Santa and all that. Not this time. I needed a copy of this book in my grubby little hands immediately and for keeps.

I should add that The Sparrow has a sequel, The Children of God. I won't be reviewing it because I didn't find it necessary. Apparently many readers, upon finishing The Sparrow, insisted that Russell deliver a more traditional conclusion to Emilio Sandoz's story. Personally, I thought The Sparrow ended well enough on its own.  It was moderately interesting, but failed to capture the spectrum-like effect of The Sparrow's voyage through the human heart. If you find yourself hurting to know what else happens to the fallen priest, or to the people of Rakhat, though, go ahead and pick it up.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I'm going to go listen to "The Weight of the World" and cry a lot.

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