Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russel

Slow, deliberate and dread-inducing

Posted March 6th
408 pages
~15 hours reading time over 4 days
Book finished February 6th

This review is spoiler-free, beyond what you’d learn from the first 20% of the book.

“It was an odd thought, under the circumstances. He understood that, even at the time. But thinking it, he realized with appalling clarity that on his journey of discovery as a Jesuit, he had not merely been the first human being to set foot on Rakhat, had not simply explored parts of its largest continent and learned two of its languages and loved some of its people. He had also 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.”

The back of the cover summary: Intelligent alien life is found on a nearby planet, and a Jesuit linguist is sent out by the Society of Jesus with a small team of specialists to make first contact. As you can see from the above quote, it, uh, goes poorly.

The pitch I heard that made me take a shot at this book was “an exploration of faith in a science fiction setting, with a dreadful twist”. I’ve been trying to read more less scientific scifi (if that makes sense?), to balance out some of denser things I’ve been reading, and The Sparrow was a delightful palate cleanser.

The summary is a bit misleading: most of The Sparrow takes place on earth, and in fact a large fraction of the chapters take place after the mission’s conclusion. It’s not really a first contact story at all; it’s a story about Father Sandoz, the linguist, and using his changing relationship with faith to explore religious questions about evil and omniscience. It ends up being a very human story that takes its time setting up the tone and plot, and it starts so much warmer than you’d expect from the pitch.

There’s laughter, there’s magic tricks for children, there’s a warm setting sun and cats sleeping on the fence post. Emilio Sandoz, a polyglot who’s been sent on missions all over the world, delights in learning new languages and befriends an older woman who finds herself learning Latin after years of curiosity about medical terminology. Anne and her husband host raccuous dinners with friends and strangers alike. Each of the characters are wonderfully realized, and their chemistry is fantastic. Relationships are given time to grow, and feel much more natural than you’d expect from a scifi book. And it’s funny! I was laughing out loud constantly at quipping amongst the cast, and that’s not easy to pull off in a slow, serious book. There’s love, and joy in learning, and dives into linguistics and anthropology and theology.

And then the chapter ends, and you jump 40 years into the future where Emilio Sandoz is found utterly broken and alone, his faith shattered. The book takes its time teasing out the details of what happened on the trip to Rakhat, while his fellow priests try to rebuild his strength and will while peicing together what went wrong.

This is why giving you that ominous quote at the start wasn’t actually a spoiler- you are told early in the book that Sandoz experiences something dreadful at the end. The mystery slowly unravels itself from both ends as the priests of the Society of Jesus learn the truth about the expedition to Rakhat while you watch it happen pre-timeskip. I love when books can pull off multiple threads like this and The Sparrow nails it. The tonal contrast between pre and post-skip chapters is the driving force of the story, moreso than the plot itself.

As for that ending, I wouldn’t call it a twist, per se. But this is certainly a book of contrasts. Any criticisms I could have about the first sections of the book lose weight when you reach the ending. This is a story told very deliberately, and the way things are presented, the faithful hubris of the Jesuits, seemingly over-the-top moments, all contribute to the devastating ending. Let yourself be swept away by the story it is telling, and let yourself believe what Emilio believes. This is a scifi book written by a religious woman, after all. You can’t make assumptions about what form God will take in this work.

I’ve never had a book leave me with such a bad taste in my mouth, especially after how much joy there was earlier on. The fact that you know that something is coming does not make it easier.

Having taken a few weeks since finishing the book to think my thoughts before polishing this up, I do strongly recommend it. I can’t guarantee you’ll experience it the same way I did, but it’ll certainly leave an impact.

I wrote this review in pieces, adding a few thoughts in here and there while I read, and halfway through, I wrote “this is such a beautiful book”. Having finished it, I can say it is in fact not. But maybe it is anyways? Can something be beautiful while having so much... not beautiful stuff in it? This is, of course, the exact question targeted by the book: how can a supposedly good God allow so much suffering? There’s a sequel(which is also supposedly quite good), but I’m hesitant to read it, because I worry it’ll try and answer some of the questions posed by The Sparrow. Maybe in a few months.

I don’t know anything about the Jesuits, though being a religious organization I assume that the real-life society has been up to a lot more shady shit than is mentioned in the book, but I don’t think Russel lets them off easy. Overall the religious side of the story didn’t turn me away at all. One of the expedition members is Jewish, and has interesting conversations about different aspects of faith and religious culture that were interesting to read.

This is my first book review, and I’m still getting the format down, but I hope you enjoyed! I don’t know what I’m doing, but when I finish a good book I always have the urge to try and put my feelings into words, so here we are. This was going to be more of a warm-up for looking at Annihilation, Children of Time, and my other past favourites, but I ended up enjoying The Sparrow a lot more than I expected! Give it a shot if you found any of this compelling.

Oh yeah! The science fiction part of the book completely fell to the wayside compared to what it was actually focusing on, but I’ve already made this categorization thing so might as well use it.

Guy in a Situation: 1/5 or 5/5 - Depending on how you look at it
Homework: 1/5
Purview: 1/5 - First contact is a big deal, but this is a human-scale story
Narrative Fuckery: 3/5 - Points for the dual timeline structure
Monstrosity: 2/5 - Comes up but isn’t the focus
Sex: 3/5 - Nothing special. some sexual biology later on as well

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