The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell (finally) (also spoilers)

I actually read this quite a while ago now, but the long wait for a post wasn’t just due to my inability to conquer laziness. Not just. It was partially because I had a lot of thoughts about the book, some of them a bit contradictory and some of them worrying that the way that I liked it wasn’t the way I was supposed to like it. That last bit was the real problem.

I can’t really discuss the Sparrow without spoiling it, I don’t think. There’s a thread of it (not the only one, and possibly not even the most important one) that is the real focus of my dilemmas, and I couldn’t possibly explain my feelings without first explaining it. So I apologies, but spoilers ahoy.

The book focuses on a small group of people in their quest to visit the planet of the aliens whose songs have been heard on earth. Here we have some solid science fiction, yes? Aliens! Space travel! Jesuits! Wait what? Not so much the normal science fiction fare. And this is great. I was sold the book pretty much on the premise of “Jesuit linguistics guy <mumble mumble some other stuff possibly aliens>”. My friends know how to get me to read things. But a huge part (at least how I read the book) of the story and the meaningful emotionality of the story comes from the spiritual journey undertaken by the main character. Now we have wandered somewhat further away from traditional SF (unless there’s a sub-genre I’ve totally missed out on). The more I look back at how I feel about the book, the more it comes down to the way the main character’s feelings about god and himself and his place in the god’s plan evolve, grow and warp.

I get the impression this is not what everyone else took from the book. Oh well.

But I sort of feel that I’m not… allowed… in some sense to feel so deeply about this, because, well… I’m an atheist. I’ve been an atheist since I was twelve (on the grounds that I don’t think I could count as anything particular until I was old enough to choose what I actually believed). I’d like to hope I’m not a bad atheist (in the sense of being a non-awful human being to those who have religious beliefs), and likewise that someone would tell me if they saw me being a bad atheist. I know I have been in the past, because everyone was teenaged once. And because of all this, because I have never been religious, and never come anywhere close to that feeling of nearness to god that Sandoz implies, that belief of being in god’s hands, I feel as if I cannot possibly find enough of my own experiences in it to be affected by it.

But I am. I honestly don’t know why. Something about the vulnerability and irony of his progression through the book really touched me, and I cared more genuinely for his story than I have for any character I’ve read for a long time. For all that I have the characters I love in that superficial way that there always is, for all my cooing over Aziraphale and Seamus Finnan and Sabetha, there isn’t that core of true emotion to my feelings about them. They’re not really real, and I know that, and so I love them in the way I love toast or rain or undamaged hardbacks, without the human aspect that makes it properly meaningful. But Sandoz’ story is different. I found myself caring so much, as if he were someone I actually knew and genuinely felt for.

And then I feel guilty about it. And don’t write my blog post for weeks because it worries me. Yay.

To move away from my weird-guilt for a moment, it truly is a wonderfully written book. It explores the what-ifs of first contact from a slightly different perspective than usual, and manages to make it feel very realistic. The structure of the story too focuses you on the right bits at the right time to make everything draw together at the perfect pace; there is an indistinct event alluded to all the way along, and the events leading up to it and following it narrated clearly and fairly simply, and you only see the crux of the story, the part which joins the recollection and the now, right at the end, when everything joins together and you see quite how painful and beautifully crafted the whole story is.

My only real criticism isn’t a proper one. For all that the other characters are wonderfully written (and I mean beautifully written) and you care and want them to succeed and live well (ha), for me, it was so much a one man show because of how well Sandoz was written. All the glorious writing of the men and women around him is overshadowed by his development. I particularly liked the other Jesuits, all of them. They balanced out beautifully. But nope, SANDOOOOOZ. SANDOZ. Maybe if the book had covered the same material in double the pages it could have done them all the same amount of justice, but it didn’t. And I don’t really care. Because Emilio Sandoz was so wonderfully, perfectly written that it was worth it just for him. 

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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