Friday, August 17, 2018

Fiction Review: The Sparrow

I am just back from a mini vacation with my family, and I couldn't wait to tell you about the novel I finished, my fourth Big Book this summer for my Big Book Summer Challenge (though it's not too big - just over 400 pages). I've been hearing about The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell for years, and when one of my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand (now retired but old episodes are still available), recommended it, with host Ann Kingman saying it was her favorite book of all time, I was sold. I bought a used copy at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, last summer. It held up to all the hype. The Sparrow is a poignant, powerful, thought-provoking story that I am still thinking about, days after finishing it.

Emilio Sandoz is a kind and charismatic Jesuit priest currently assigned to his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after a long string of assignments to exotic, distant places that needed his unique talents in linguistics. Jimmy Quinn is also in Puerto Rico, working at Arecibo Observatory where, late one night, while reviewing sound input from various SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) stations around the world, he hears strange music that he identifies as coming from another planet. Before long, the Jesuits put together a mission to visit this never-before-identified planet in Alpha Centauri, in order to meet and learn from another intelligent species. The mission ends in disaster, with Emilio returning alone, as the sole survivor, accused of heinous crimes, and horribly disfigured and in constant pain. Most of the novel explores what happens in between.

This brief passage from the prologue explains how the Jesuits came to be the first to contact an alien species and why, and provides a glimpse into the author's talents:
"After the first exquisite songs were intercepted by radio telescope, U.N. diplomats debated long and hard whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to reach the world that would become known as Rakhat. In the Rome offices of the Society of Jesus, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.

The Jesuit scientists went to Rakhat to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm."

Hooked yet? This is one of those novels that begins at the end, so I haven't given away any spoilers here. You know from the first chapter that Emilio is the sole survivor of the mission and that he's been through some kind of horrific experience. The narrative moves back and forth between Puerto Rico in 2019, when Jimmy discovers the music, and Rome in 2060, where Emilio is recuperating and being questioned as to what happened. It's not until around page 140 that the mission actually gets underway and leaves Earth. Those early chapters introduce the main characters and help the reader get to know them intimately - and their relationships with each other - so that by the time the mission starts, you feel as if they are all old friends.

It's kind of a slow-ish start, except that you know how things end, so there is a pervasive feeling of dread and plenty of suspense as to what will go wrong and how. The pace picks up considerably once the team is off-Earth, and the details of their journey and especially their experiences on Rakhat and their interactions with the beings they meet there are absolutely fascinating and immersive. One warning: as foreshadowed from the first chapter, some of the things that happen to Emilio toward the end of the novel (and the end of his time on Rakhat) are violent and very disturbing. However, if you can get past that, other scenes on Rakhat are beautiful, heartwarming, and full of joy. Though technically science fiction, this very compelling and original novel is ultimately about what it means to be human. I found the novel moving, powerful, and oh-so thoughtful. It got into my head (and my heart) so deeply that I had trouble starting a new book when I finished. I wasn't ready to leave the world of The Sparrow quite yet.

405 pages, Villard

OMG! I just discovered there is a sequel!! Children of God was published a few years after The Sparrow (in 1999) and continues the story of Emilio Sandoz, as he recovers from his ordeal and is brought in - reluctantly - to help train a new group for another mission to Rakhat. I can't wait to read it!

You can purchase The Sparrow from Northshire Bookstore, like I did:

Or order The Sparrow from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. The title had me thinking about a completely different kind of book so the description threw me for a loop :-)

    1. ha ha - yeah, it isn't until the last pages that the title is explained - had me stumped for a while, too!