Author Mary Doria Russell is a paleoanthrolpolgist, as well as an adherent to Judaism. However, she grew up Catholic, renounced her faith as a teenager, and took up her current faith when she had children and was trying to figure out what she wanted to pass on to her children. Her professional and spiritual background put her in an interesting position to create a cerebral, unique work of speculative science fiction. The Sparrow is equally engaging and horrifying. I wanted to put it down, but I also didn’t.
The Sparrow centers around Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who grew up in Puerto Rico. After a friend discovers what seems to be music coming from a nearby planet, Sandoz leads a group of Jesuit priests and civilians in a mission to establish contact with “the Singers”, the beings generating the music on the planet called Rakhat. Sandoz always struggled with his relationship with God, and for the first time he feels comfortable placing his faith in a benevolent higher power. He knows God is using him and leading him.
The novel takes place in both the present and the future, so the reader knows from page one’s future PO disgraced as the missio’s sole survivor. This knowledge makes the leadup to the mission all the more tragic.
Russell’s decision to share the mission’s fate from the beginning of the story is bold, but it pays off. Dread and sadness hover over everything, as it does for “future” Sandoz. Disillusioned and broken, he tries to make sense of what happened, and of the character of God. God, Sandoz said, either doesn’t exist or plays a cruel joke on those who had faith in him.
In the authors one words, the central theme of The Sparrow is an exploration of the risks and beauties of religious faith. I don’t know the book would appeal to everyone because of the nature of the book and the heavy plot. However, if you are the type of person to search for meaning in tragedy, and if you find Elie Wiesel or Viktor Frankl’s writing important and worthwhile, you will probably like this book. It reminded me of Job, of Snowpiercer, of Frankl, of 2016 in general.
Russell’s book is well done, and I plan on reading the sequel, but I don’t think it will stay on my top shelf forever.