Published in 1996, The Sparrow is the first novel by Mary Doria Russell. Having thoroughly enjoyed Thread of Grace by the same author, I decided to read this book. It was very different. For starters, The Sparrow is a work of science fiction. This is a complete departure from the historical fiction of the other book. Fortunately, I enjoy some good science fiction, so I was not deterred.
Right from the start, Russell captured my interest. She uses a dual narrative, beginning in the year 2059, after a lone survivor returns from a mission to an inhabited planet in the neighboring Alpha Centauri galaxy. Everyone else on the mission has died or been killed and the survivor, a Jesuit priest, is accused of murder himself. Intriguing, right?
Well, it gets even better. There are two main themes running through the book. The first deals with the mistakes we make when meeting new peoples for the first time. Russell was fascinated with the early explorers’ encounters with natives, and how our modern culture judges them with condemnation of their actions. She wanted to write a story that would show how difficult it would be to establish a first contact, and that those standards we held the early explorers to would still be impossible to meet. Russell chose an outerwordly setting, because it provided a place where explorers could actually have a “first contact.”
The second theme deals with perceptions of God. The author was a former Catholic who converted to Judaism in adulthood. In Judaism, God is portrayed as an observer, rather than an active participant in our lives. In The Sparrow, Father Emilio Sandoz’s faith is exalted when first he believes God is responsible for his own personal journey and the joy he has found there. Then, when it appears as if hell is unleashed, the priest’s faith is challenged because he feels he must credit God with the evil or else deny God’s hand in his life altogether. I loved Russell’s portrayal of the struggles of faith. She clearly was well researched in Catholicism, and the angst suffered by Father Sandoz was presented brilliantly. I was totally engaged by this amazing novel, from the beginning all the way to the end.
4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1996