My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[Mild spoiler warning, but nothing the narrator doesn’t tell you in the first chapter or two].
Having read this for the Mythgard Institute’s Science Fiction Part II class, I should be putting it down and picking up the next book in the reading queue, but that’s proving rather difficult. This is a book to finish, heave a big sigh, consume a lot of tea, and think about for a respectable amount of time. Like Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which I read a few weeks ago for the same class, Mary Doria Russell’s uses science fiction to set in motion a story that’s really about human beings confronting the most fundamental and terrifying question there is: The Problem of Evil (or, in C.S. Lewis’ terms, The Problem of Pain). In the end, Emilio is presented with two mutually exclusive alternatives, just as we are: Either the universe is random, chaotic, and ultimately meaningless or there is a God. Through the events the story describes, we see why he would be hard-pressed to conclude which is the more horrifying prospect. Paradoxically, the more Emilio finds his faith and falls in love with God, the more that faith is tested and challenged. As C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
The story describes a Jesuit mission to make first contact with an off-world culture. Bringing forward the Jesuit traditions of outreach, intellectual curiosity, mysticism, and (occasionally) martyrdom, we are presented with a near-futuristic take on the stories of missionaries and saints who’ve risked and sometimes given all for the glory of God. As the central figure, Emilio is absolutely lovable and sympathetic, as are his team of friends and colleagues. His charisma, strength, joy, and flexibility are crucial for his survival, and the study of the many shades and facets of his psyche become the meat of the story. Russell’s split-timeline structure (thankfully) cushions the blow of the mission’s disastrous end by showing us in the first chapter that Emilio – disfigured, malnourished, and nearly catatonic with trauma – returns to Earth as the sole survivor. Like his interrogators, we know the how but not the why, and as Emilio is fond of saying, “God is in the why.” The story, in effect, is an exploration of why these bad things happened. But at the end, are we any wiser? Shit, as they say, happens. There are a million reasons why. Good and smart people make mistakes. Languages and cultures are fatally misinterpreted. People are in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is genuine cruelty in the world and in people. In the end, we don’t get a pat or condescending explanation of “why” this happened to Emilio and his friends, and painful as that may be perhaps it’s better, for no one thing could really explain or ameliorate all of their suffering. Maybe God has an explanation, but we do not.
The other thing the flashbacks do is to control the pacing of the story and allow some light and air into the room. The invasive questioning of Father General and Voelker are balanced against the fun and loving friendships of the team in their early days, and as their mission rapidly deteriorates we see Emilio gradually, haltingly, painfully recovering. It is a sad and brutal story, but never hopeless. Russell knows how to temper the suffering and soul-searching with humor and warmth. Her characters are believably flawed but always sympathetic and extremely likable. Knowing they’ll meet tragic ends didn’t stop me loving them all.
Though a smooth and, in its own way, enjoyable read, The Sparrow is by no means easy. A glance at other reviews shows that it provokes a love-it-or-hate-it response in readers, and those are often the best kind of stories. Whatever it makes you feel, it will make you feel strongly. For a book daring to confront perhaps the most inscrutable and ancient of human questions, I think that’s more than good enough. If you’re in the mood for a book that will make you think, laugh, and cry (and if you’re not, you really should be) do yourself a favor and pick it up.