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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell

Sometimes you know from the moment you first pick it up that a book is special.  It doesn't have to work to win you over.  It doesn't have to prove itself.  You're not going to have to set it aside after a hundred pages because you're just not getting into it or something about it bothers you or it's not the right time. This book was meant for you, for this moment in your life.

It's like falling in love at first sight, and you just know.

It took me exactly one page to fall in love with The Sparrow.

It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples, indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration.

The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days. In New York, diplomats debated long and hard, with many recesses and tablings of the issue, whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to contact the world that would become known as Rakhat when there were so many pressing needs on Earth. In Rome, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.

The Society asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. The mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately - a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.

The first time I read that prologue (and I went back to read it again and again as I made my way through the book) it gave me shivers.  THAT is some effective foreshadowing, right there.  THAT is a hook.

It's possible to make an even more succinct case for this book, though; I managed it in half a sentence the other night at our weekly family dinner night.

"I'm reading this incredible book," I told my friends.

"What's it about?"

"Well, there's this mysterious radio transmission that comes in from outer space, and--"

"SOLD," they said.  Well, some people are easy.

If science fiction as a genre could be encapsulated in a single question, it would probably be What if? But SF is uniquely suited for also asking Why?  Some of the most thought-provoking moral, philosophical and religious texts I've ever read have been found on the SF shelves, books like A Canticle for Leibowitz, VALIS, Slaughterhouse-Five and Contact.  Fantasy, too, has a long tradition of moral/theological narratives, but there I think allegory is more common, fanciful retellings with simple one-to-one substitutions: the lion is Jesus, the dark lord is Lucifer.  I don't have a problem with allegories necessarily, and I do love me some fantasy, but SF, voyaging as it does away from the here and now, Earth, humans, and our spiritual traditions, can more easily cast a penetrative eye on what makes us tick and what gives us meaning.

The Sparrow does this more effectively than any other book I've read in any genre, and I make that superlative claim mindfully.  I honestly can't think of another book that asks really weighty questions - about faith, about God, about suffering and loss, about atrocity - and not only examines them, but answers them.  Whether you think it gives the right answers depends on your theology, but for me it's a remarkable insight into a religious viewpoint I don't share but deeply understand and respect.  It's a view of God that my atheist mind can fathom.

This isn't some ponderous theological tome, however.  At heart, it's a gripping story, plotty and dense but character driven and deliciously speculative.  All the things I love.  Mary Doria Russell is an incredibly gifted writer, in that way that just makes you drop the book from time to time and whisper wow, and then give up on the idea of ever trying to write fiction yourself because you will never be even remotely this good.  That this is a first novel is incomprehensible, but then, some people just have one incredible novel inside them bursting to get out, and once that's done they either write crap or nothing at all.  I don't know much about Russell's other novels, including the sequel to The Sparrow, but something tells me she's this kind of author.

A word of warning, though: This book in all likelihood will make you cry.  And not a solitary tear of "gee, that's just so sad", but great heaving sobs from somewhere deep in your soul, ugly and loud and snotty.  Just... plan ahead and read the last 50 pages in solitude, and bring a box of tissues.  It's gutwrenching.  And even though I knew it was coming from the beginning of Chapter 1 ("To the best of our knowledge, Father Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of the Jesuit mission to Rakhat."), all the foreshadowing and parallel storylines and even the major reveal of the mission's disastrous ending halfway through the book, did nothing to prepare me.  It's brutal, and scarring, and harrowing, and cruel.

Interestingly, for a book whose major characters are nearly all Catholic, and whose theological viewpoint is also ostensibly Catholic, Russell wrote it from the perspective of a Jewish convert.  "When you convert to Judaism in a post-Holocaust world, you know two things for sure: one is that being Jewish can get you killed; the other is that God won't rescue you."  Later in the same interview, she describes the book thusly: "What happens to Emilio Sandoz is a holocaust writ small."

So in a sense, this book really is an allegory.  It could also be seen as an allegory of The Book of Job.  But God is such a colossal dick in that story, making a casual bet with the devil that this pious man would still worship Him even if He (ruthlessly and for no reason at all) destroyed everything he owned and murdered his entire family.  The devil's like, you're on, and God sets about laying waste to everything Job holds dear.  What an Almighty asshole!  But that's not Russell's depiction here.  Emilio may be Job in some respects, but this God isn't capricious or malicious, He just doesn't intervene.

"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.

Whether such a god, who sits around feeling bad for his children without ever lifting a finger to help them, deserves any worship, is a separate question. For the Jesuits, it's enough of an answer to theodicy to help Emilio begin to heal.  The reader can draw her own conclusions.

But I love this book.  And even more, I dearly love these characters.  Sometimes you read a book and recognize that it's well-written, well-paced, its characters well-developed, its themes well-explored. The satisfaction comes from recognizing those aspects and pondering on them.  (This is how I usually react when I encounter The Great Works Of The Western Canon.)  But sometimes you read a book and just tumble down into a deep well of love for it, and it's only after it lets go its hold on your psyche a bit that you can step back and say, yes, that was well-written, well-paced, well-characterized, well-examined.

And yes, this is a book about God and other grave and weighty things, and it handles them well.  But I love it for Anne and George, for Jimmy, for Sofia, for DW, for Askama, and most of all, for Emilio.

"You know, he was always a good priest," Felipe told them, remembering, "but it must have been about the time that they were planning the mission, something changed in him. It was like, I don't know, sometimes he would just-- ignite." Felipe's hands moved, making a shape like fireworks. "There was something in his face, so beautiful. And I thought, if that's what it's like to be a priest... It was like he fell in love with God."

"Offhand," said the Father General wearily, in a voice dry as August grass, "I'd say the honeymoon is over."
13 March 2013