Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Sparrow


I discovered Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow (and its sequel, Children of God) in 2007, through a random link on Amazon. Since the first time I read it, it's been one of my most frequent book recommendations. I recently re-read both books, and I'm even more impressed with them now, if that's possible.

The Sparrow is set in the semi-near future. It focuses on Emilio Sandoz, a charming Jesuit priest and linguist with a rough past. Through some friends, he meets a young astronomer who is the first to discover music coming from an alien planet called Rakhat. The circumstances surrounding the discovery, and gathering of this particular group of people, are such that Emilio is convinced they've been given a mission from God. Within a short time, the small motley crew is off to Rakhat to meet "the singers," and that's when the real story begins.

Many reviewers have taken issue with the lack of a happy ending in these books (although Children of God ends on a hopeful, if not ideal, note). Personally, I think that's part of what makes them so brilliant, and what I related to on this re-reading. Although he's a priest, Emilio's faith doesn't fully bloom until the crew arrives on Rakhat and starts interacting with the natives. Then, he feels a deep sense of fulfillment, purpose, and destiny. He "falls in love with God" - and at this peak of love and trust, God allows tragic, horrific things to happen to him. Shattered by his experiences, Emilio is left to struggle, grieve, despair, and try to make sense of it all. Yet his love for God never completely dies, and he eventually finds healing. My own experiences, while not nearly as terrible as Emilio's, have left me asking many of the same questions. When you feel assured that you're exactly where God wants you and doing what He wants you to do, and it results in pain and loss, how can you reconcile that with the fact of His love? Or, on a more basic level, why do bad things happen to "good" people? These books give voice to things I haven't been able to express, and don't provide pat answers, and I'm thankful for that.

By the way, don't be scared away from these books if you're not a Christian - a lot of faiths, and non-faiths, are represented respectfully and intelligently. I think everyone can get something out of it.

On a writing note, one of my favorite things in any kind of story is a strong ensemble cast, in which all the characters are well-drawn individuals, but interwoven with each other in all the ways that real people are. These books are some of the best examples I've seen. Emilio is the center, but the other characters are no less vivid or important. In fact, I'd say that character development is the real focus of the books. This is sci-fi in which the sci-fi is almost incidental at times.

Apparently Brad Pitt bought the movie rights to The Sparrow around 2005, but nothing is actually in the works. Too bad, because it would be an incredible movie. I think Antonio Banderas could be a good Emilio, but I'm not familiar with too many Hispanic actors. He might be too old for the role by the time the movie gets made.


  1. I guess I really need to start a new to-read list. Because these books are totally going on it!

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely have to check these out!

  3. These are amazing books. I think I read them on your recommendation, if I recall correctly. I find that there is a lot in them that relates to the more metaphysical side of physics that we often get into discussing in the classes I teach. I recommend them to my students (with a little warning about some content, of course).