REVIEW: The Sparrow (The Sparrow #1) by Mary Doria Russell

SparrowRating: 5 out of 5 stars, Genre: Science Fiction, Pages: 408, Level: Intermediate

Book Description:

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being “human.” Words like “provocative” and “compelling” will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.

They meant no harm. p3

That was enough to hook me.

An atheist, agnostic and Catholic walk into a bar… that might actually happen in the book; I can’t remember. My point is, it’s all in there. Obviously there is a strong Catholic, or at least Christian, aspect to the story- the Jesuits’ organization is called the Society of Jesus after all- but many different views on God are discussed, as well as other topics entirely unrelated to religion or God. While tremendously profound, The Sparrow successfully addresses religion, belief and non-belief, doubt, crises of faith, morality, unintended consequences and so much more, without coming across as preachy:

“Son, sometimes it’s enough just to act less like a shithead.”

Who could argue with such simplicity?

If you have read my other reviews, you may remember that one of my favorite themes is religion- the war in Heaven, weirdo religious cults, The Children of Lazarus, skepticism, apologetics… I can’t get enough. So The Sparrow was right up my alley. What I didn’t expect was to love this book so much. I didn’t want to put it down and tried to force myself to read slowly- truly an exercise in futility. After I finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I dreamed about it. I didn’t read anything else for a few days because I had a hard time concentrating on anything else. I think my sister refers to this as book coma.

I debated whether or not it earned a spot on my top ten favorite books list; it was definitely in the top twenty. Then I sat down to write this review. The more I thought about it- revisiting quotes I had marked, going over arguments and discussion points- the better the book got and I realized it definitely earned a top ten spot. I even purchased a used, former library, hard cover copy of it along with the sequel, Children of God. That itself is high praise indeed.

Hopefully all this talk of deeper, intellectual topics will not dissuade you from picking up this book. Rest assured, there is no proselytizing reminiscent of Ayn Rand or Tolstoy. On the contrary, while there is revelation in brief exposition, most of the points of discussion are set within events or dialogue. Inner monologue is one of my pet peeves, an overabundance of which is guaranteed to lower my rating. Such is not the case with The Sparrow.

The story itself is captivating and while it is science fiction, it’s not overly heavy on the SciFi. In fact, it reminded me of the movie Contact. I was fascinated at the discovery of the transmission in the movie and The Sparrow also shares that moment with the reader. Because I get so invested in books, I was able to imagine the initial shock and subsequent excitement at such a life-changing discovery, just as I felt heartbreak at other moments. In short, I cried. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I wept. I’m talking tears streaming down my face and daughter stopping to check on me weeping. My family is used to me occasionally shedding a tear or two, but even my husband gave me a second glance this time.

Which brings me to the writing. At times, it is breathtaking:

There are times, he would tell the Reshtar, when we are in the midst of life- moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness- times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as a deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth.

He would tell the Reshtar: When my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we call it praying.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Before I get into my final thoughts, I should probably insert a warning. I don’t usually like to read other reviews until after I have written mine, but there is something in the book that could be a deal breaker and I was curious as to whether or not others included that detail. Enough do, so I don’t feel obligated to mention it here because it is a spoiler. If there is a topic or situation that is an absolute deal breaker for you, please read some of the negative reviews on Goodreads.

In all honesty, I cannot possibly do this book justice. It took me a long time to finally write this review and now that it is almost finished, it seems unacceptably inadequate. I know, those of you who read The Dinner and The Casual Vacancy because they were on my top ten list and then hated them are raising an eyebrow right now. All I can say is give it a shot; if you don’t like it, feel free to yell at me in the comments.

Reza Aslan said in his infamous CNN interview, “If you are a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism, your Buddhism will be violent… people are violent or peaceful and that depends on their politics, their social world, the way they see their communities, the way they see themselves.” I think The Sparrow has the same potential. If you are an atheist, you may walk away from The Sparrow with the message that religion and belief in God is dangerous. If you are agnostic, you may walk away from The Sparrow with the message that “the one thing an agnostic knows for sure is: you never know” Children of God. If you are a believer, you may walk away from The Sparrow still embracing that God does indeed have a plan and we will never understand it.

No matter how much we have evolved as a race, I believe that humans, deep down, still see themselves as the center of the universe. From our perspective, we are. And that’s what it all comes down to- perspective. Regardless of the author’s intent, what the reader takes away will come down to perspective. At the very least, hopefully an appreciation and interest in other points of view will tag along. At most, maybe you will be haunted by the tragic beauty of this amazing story.

One thing I can tell you for sure- The Sparrow sang to me. After all, from my perspective, it is a love song.

Reviewed by Christina Galvez
April 7, 2015

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