Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: The Sparrow

Title: The Sparrow
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: A+

Summary (from Indianapolis-Marion County Public The Sparrow, an astonishing literary debut, 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.

Review: Have you ever read a book that made you want to throw up and you consider it one of the best books you've ever read? Achieving that balance is a rare feat, I'd presume, but Mary Doria Russell has maintained the right mix of the horrifying with the beautiful to keep you absolutely consumed in this novel.

Russell has a great writing style, compact, with an economy of language that makes this book so entirely readable that you'll find yourself finding ways to keep it in your hands (eschewing other books and responsibilities like sleeping and eating). Her ability to write so well, balancing the complexity of telling two story lines occurring on the foreign planet and in her future vision of Earth, may be attributable to her prior life writing academic articles as an anthropologist.

Getting back to the complexity of the story-line and the dual plots, you have to know that Russell has a great storyline because you go into the novel knowing the essence of the plot--eight people go up in a spaceship and only one, Emilio Sandoz, comes back alive; however, you keep reading because you want to know what happened on that planet and why everything went awry. Russell creates characters that you love and you feel invested in, you feel their pain and realize that the worst that Sandoz goes through is not physical pain, but humiliation and complete loss of his worldview, and utter loneliness that is unconsoleable.

The theme of the book is rich, and its clear that Russell is writing to tell a tale of her anthropological roots--how cultures perceive and impact each other. But it goes deeper than that. Russel says, in an interview included in the Ballantine Readers' Circle edition of the book, that at the end of the book she wants readers to realize, "That you can't know the answers to questions of faith but that the questions are worth asking and worth thinking about deeply," (416).

Maybe this theme, the weaving together of science and faith, is especially poignant to me as a Christian who works with researchers that are doing experiments using stem cells in an effort to find a way to clone new livers or pancreases or kidneys for transplant patients--a noble cause sure, but are they playing god?

Also, I loved the ideas that I wrestled with while reading this book. Does God's will make sense? What makes humans think that we have a right to understand the will of God with our finite minds? Why do we attempt to rid the world of sickness or pain that is clearly an effect of the fall and a manifestation of the evil in the world, knowing that we'll never be completely successful? As Russell predicts, you won't come to perfect answers to your questions while reading The Sparrow, but that doesn't mean the pursuit of the answers isn't meaningful.

This book has graphic imagery in it; however, Russell does a great job of not being in the least bit profane. The worst thing that happens is that the priest admits he was raped while on the foreign planet, begging the question, "Is confession good for the soul?", but never actually describes the act(s). Perhaps that's what is so cringe-inducing--Russell doesn't have to explicitly state the details of the atrocities, but our minds have been exposed to such a range of evils (at the hands of our fellow humans) that we knew the implications and, thus, you have a strong reaction.

When I posted a teaser from this book for last week's Teaser Tuesday, avisannschild, wrote that this was among the most disturbing books she's ever read, and Wendi B. said that someone recommended it to her as one of the best books they've read. There in lies the beauty of The Sparrow, disturbing and profoundly great. A+ indeed.


Ann said...

This is definitely one of my all-time favorite books -- in the top 5, if not #1. I find it impossible to describe to people in a way that makes them want to read it, and I think you did an admirable job here! Thanks for the great review -- I'm glad you loved it as much as I did. Be sure to read CHILDREN OF GOD, the follow-up to The Sparrow. I read them back-to-back and can't recall where one book ends and the other begins -- it's that seamless. Enjoy!

Heather said...

My book group discussed this last night... it was perhaps one of the most interesting discussions we've had in a good number of months.

I definitely want to read CHILDREN OF GOD to see how Sandoz does with going back to Rakhat and not having a choice in the matter. Thanks!

Ali said...

Loved this book, and the sequel. I read it on my own and made my book group read it so we could talk about it. Definitely read Children of God before The Sparrow fades from your memory (or maybe your memory is sharper than mine).