The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Published 1997 by Ballantine Books. 431 pages
This book came out 18 years ago– the year I was born. Many people, much more eloquent than I have written and talked about this book. I’ve been trying to decide how I should approach reviewing older novels, especially popular ones that many people have probably read. The conclusion I came to is to give my impressions and focus less on plot– so I won’t stress the details.
I’ve been on a collision course for a long time. It’s the favorite novel of someone’s whose opinion I trust, and my copy technically belongs to my sister, who first read it for her Freshman year honors course three years ago. When I told her I was reading it she said “you are in for a ride.” So I did know some things beforehand, but the suspense functions best when not much is said.
Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”
But the sparrow still falls.”
The novel defies categorization. Some elements are soft science fiction, something close to Ursula LeGuin, but much of the thick of the plot is character based– relationships and internal struggle. It’s about language and understanding and perceptions and relationships– between Emilio and God, and the host fantastic supporting characters.
And yes, God is a large part of the novel, but it’s much more of a meditation than a dogma.
Terrible things happen– it’s not a spoiler to say so. But finding the context, and going through the same emotional journey as Emilio makes the core of the novel.
The more negative reviews of this book claim that the inevitable tragedy is underwhelming. I can’t help but think those people missed the point a bit. The Sparrow is a novel about personal tragedy, especially in the case where a person is undone by something they held dear. In the case of Emilio Sandoz, it’s his relationship with God. It resists becoming torture porn so well.
Not everyone gets a glorious death.