I wonder how it feels to be one of the thirty-one agents who rejected The Sparrow?
Oh, but I shouldn’t be so hard on hapless agents unable to recognize genius or unwilling to take a risk. It took me many years (seventeen from its date of publication, five from when I became aware of it) to pick up Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel. And four days to devour it.
The threaded narrative is split in two by time and space, but follows the story of one man: Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico with preternatural linguistic abilities. In 2022, Emilio and seven other crew members board the Stella Maris to explore the recently-discovered planet Rakhat. In 2059, Emilio returns from the mission alone, physically and psychologically broken. Although nearly forty years have passed on Earth since the doomed crew embarked on their voyage, Emilio—who travelled at light speed—is fresh from the horror. Not even three years have passed in his life since the Stella Maris's departure. The story of what happened to the crew had been relayed by another mission that followed a few years behind the Stella Maris. It is horrific—or we suppose it must be— for Russell raises the tension ante by shifting back to the recent future, keeping her hand on the release valve of the truth as the storylines gradually merge. Whatever happened, Emilio isn’t telling. His hands have been mutilated, he suffers debilitating migraines, and he refuses to defend himself against terrible accusations. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Vincenzo Guiliani, gives Emilio two months at a retreat outside Naples to heal, then the questioning will begin.
Journey is a core theme of The Sparrow and the characters undertake many. The literal journey from Earth to a distant planet is the heart of the novel’s gripping premise, but the internal journeys make it fascinating and heartbreaking. There are journeys of faith, love, marriage and ageing; journeys that test physical limits and break the spirit. The spiritual journeys resonate and Russell’s masterful plotting enthralls.
I’ve been thinking hard about this in the days since I finished The Sparrow and I struggle to come up with more than a few titles of books that have been as holistic a reading experience, in which my every literary need and desire have been so exquisitely satisfied. I managed White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse; Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell; Atonement, Ian McEwan; Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes; The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco; A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but what they have in common is riveting story, characters who get under your skin, a scope awesome in size-either in research or world-building (or both) yet with deeply personal themes, and gorgeous but accessible prose. Each of these books changed me not just as a reader, but as a person. I add The Sparrow to this estimable collection.
Although I could have appreciated The Sparrow many years ago, I wonder if it would have touched me in the same way. The story caught me at a juncture of my own spiritual journey: the road that led me far from religion has crested a rise and I can see past the morass of dogma to the more orderly pursuit of theology. I am left with an inexplicable sense of beauty and hope and a renewed determination to continue my quest.
After forgoing The Sparrow for so long, why now? Well, that’s an easy one. I was gobsmacked by Mary Doria Russell’s most recent novel, Doc (review linked). If I could be this rapturous about a “western,” I was willing to follow her into science fiction. After The Sparrow, I’d follow her anywhere.
Just a sidebar about genre. I understand it’s in our genetic code to sort and classify. But it’s a damn shame to pigeonhole literary fiction with nugatory genres. How many times have I heard “Oh, I don’t really like westerns” as I’ve waxed enthusiastic about Doc in recent weeks (after moaning and groaning myself before digging into this book club pick)? More’s the pity. Ditto The Sparrow—often categorized as science fiction. I resolve henceforth to ignore simplistic classifications and explore a book based on the quality of its storytelling and prose, rather than knee-jerk a rejection because a novel is set in Dodge City, KS or on Planet Rakhat. End of soapbox. Continuation of reading bliss.