Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell : a review

After hearing beautiful singing transmitted from far-off space, a group of Jesuits decide to send a team to find the planet it came from and make contact with its people. Close to 40 years later, Emilio Sandoz returns the only survivor, maimed and accused of horrible crimes. The novel flips back and forth between the story of the trip to the planet of Rakhat, and the aftermath of Sandoz's return as the Jesuits try to make sense of what happened.

Though The Sparrow is about alien contact, the crux of the book is Emilio's journey of faith, feeling closer to God than he has ever has before - indeed, feeling his whole life has led up to visiting Rakhat - and then plunging into a crisis in which he is forced to believe that God either doesn't exist, or is vicious and cruel. The novel's title refers to a quote from the book of Matthew: "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." The sparrow, of course, is Emilio Sandoz.

I don't read much science fiction, but this book strikes me as being much less impersonal than scifi usually is, with greater character development and more of a focus on the characters' lives and personalities. Interestingly, this book isn't usually categorized with science fiction, but I have no idea if that's why. At any rate, I first heard of this book on the publib listserv where many librarians listed it as one of their all-time favorite books. I don't know yet if I'll consider it a favorite, but I certainly liked it quite a lot - it was beautiful and haunting and imaginative. Even if you never read books about people going to planets and making contact with aliens, I recommend that you check this one out.

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