The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of the amazing things about reading is it allows us to communicate, mind to mind, regardless of time or proximity. That was how it felt to read The Sparrow—diving in and having a heartfelt conversation with the author about the future, about philosophy, about God.
I’m upset I didn’t discover this book sooner. It was a powerful and engrossing read, the kind of book that you tell everyone about even before you’re done with it.
On the face of it, it’s almost silly: a group of Jesuits are the first people to discover—and then go out to meet—a new alien sentient species. They want to “meet God’s other children.” But it’s sincere rather than farcical. The main character, Emilio Sandoz, feels called by God. And you wonder, throughout, if he is right.
The mission goes horribly wrong, and the communications sent back to Earth tell a twist on the facts that lead everyone back on Earth to revile Emilio, the only survivor. Emilio is a broken man when he returns, and it takes months to get him physically and emotionally healed enough to tell his story, for the truth in the misunderstandings to be revealed.
I won’t get into it, other than to say it is powerful.
My only complaint about the story is that it pulls back a little on the narrative just at the climactic reveal. Just when the horrible truths are being told, the narration shifts exclusively to a distant third-person telling, as Emilio dispassionately explains what happened. But the rest of the story had let it flit from character to character. It felt a little like a cheat, like even the author had trouble imagining the horrors she had dreamed up and only wanted to examine them academically. But I would have liked to have heard it from closer-up, from one of the other characters as it happened, to feel the full terror rather than an academic one.
Still, the book is brave in so many ways. I only hope we haven’t disappointed our past selves too much by being so far behind the sci-do curve.