In 2059, Father Emilio Sandoz returns to earth physically and emotionally disfigured, the apparent only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat in Alpha Centauri. What happened? The people of earth demand to know, as does the Father General of the Society of Jesus, who bears the potentially-polar burdens of ministering to a shattered man responsible for the Society’s shattered reputation.
Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is stunning: delicate and brutal, heartwarming and chilling. I credit this mostly to her deeply rich characterization. Their fears, desires, and humor make every one of the characters (including the non-humans) as believable as your next-door neighbor. She has created an entire planet in full—ecosystems, sentient creatures of varying races, languages, social structures, architecture—as authentically as she anticipates the technology and sociology of earth five decades future. (For more about her creation of Rakhat, I highly recommend an excellent interview with Russell by Speaking of Faith’s Krista Tippett on “The Novelist as God.”) The narrative revolves smoothly between the literary present (2059) and the years leading up to and during the disastrous mission, revealing just enough to maintain a perfect suspense. The ending is utterly devastating, but with a barely-there sliver of hope that provides for the sequel, The Children of God.
Most captivating of all is the way Russell handles her theme: theodicy, or the problem of evil. The mission crew is prepared for the worst-case scenario, but what they discover to their horror is a reality far worse than they imagined:
Not madness but the mathematics of eternity drove them. To save souls…no burdens was too heavy, no price too steep.… Yes, he thought, Jesuits are well prepared for martyrdom. Survival, on the other hand, could be an intractable problem.
Russell’s agnostic scientists and Rabbi-quoting Jesuit priests are united in mission but struggle with the individuality of each other’s perspectives. When you can’t see the end of a journey, how can you evaluate a particular step as being either in the “right” or “wrong” direction? Is a project coming together evidence that it is “meant to be,” or is it just the result of pattern-seeking people wishing it so? When all hell breaks loose, is it God’s fault for sending them there, or their fault for seeing God in it at all?
‘There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So he breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists’
‘So God just leaves?’ John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. ‘Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”
‘No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us and remembering.’
‘Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,’ Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. ‘”Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”’
‘But the sparrow still falls,’ Felipe said.
Russell ultimately refuses a tidy solution, forcing the reader to consider each character’s point of view—not because everyone is “equally right” but in acknowledgement that there can be no simple resolution to the deepest question humanity has ever pondered.
If you often consider this question, you’ll be moved by the author’s humanity and authenticity. And if you don’t often consider this question, this book will force you to. I dare you to read the one-page prologue and then put down this novel!
Mary Doria Russell has a PhD in Biological Anthropology and is retired from the faculty of Case Western Reserve University. She is known is the scientific community for her research challenging claims of Neanderthal cannibalism and arguing instead that the evidence supports “secondary burial.” The Sparrow, published in 1996, was her first novel; the sequel, Children of God, followed two years later. She has since published two historical novels, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day, and is working on a third. Most importantly for the purposes of my epilogue, she lives in Cleveland, in my home state of Ohio—which makes this review an Ohio stop on the Literary Road Trip sponsored by Michelle at Galleysmith!