Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Title: The Sparrow
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Pages: 405
Genre: Fiction; Sci-Fi; Christian
Publisher: Ballantine Books (Random House)
Pub. Date: September 9, 1996

I had heard of The Sparrow once or twice before and knew it to be highly underrated (in terms of how well known and popular it was) and heard it was amazing and life changing. (Read the reviews on any site... you'll find mostly 5 star reviews all touting similar reactions). So with the recent read-a-long hosted by Trish at Love, Laughter, Insanity, and my recent desire to jump back into blogging and reconnecting with the book blogging world, I decided to join right in. I have very mixed thoughts after reading this. First let me explain briefly what it's about as well as any confusion you may have at reading the genre categories!

The basic plot is about the Jesuit Society hearing alien transmissions from another planet, so they send a team to investigate and learn about what other possible life forms there are. Bad things happen there, though, and only one person returns to Earth where he is interrogated, questioned, judged, etc. The narration flips back and forth from the current time (year 2060) after Emilio Sandoz has returned and from 2016-2019 when this mission started. The flip flopping of the narration adds to the tension because you know something horrible happened and just a little about it and the other narration builds to that end we're all trying to figure out.

This was a heavy book to read -- dense in its 405 pages. It was actually more engaging than I expected it to be in a lot of ways. But I can see where a lot of readers felt the middle dragged.. but I think it's not that it dragged but that it's that the focus was on the life found on the other planet, Rakhat. I felt like I learned. SO. MUCH.... only it is all fiction, LOL. I don't read a whole lot of scf-fi or fantasy so I may just not be used to how the genre works, but I don't remember in the few things I have read of having to focus as much on specifically learning the terms, the cultural factors, etc. as opposed to learning it indirectly through the movement of the story itself. The reason for all that here was because the main characters' purpose in going to this world WAS to learn these things, so part of moving the story along, I suppose, was learning and explaining these things. How their language works. Why they speak the way they do. What their culture is like. How it operates economically. I just sort of felt like maybe it was a bit much... maybe I just feel guilty that I can tell you so much about the Runa and Jana'ata and Ruanja and K'San and Kashan and Supaari VaGayjur and spacial observation vs. non-visual etc. etc. but I'm still working on understanding a lot of real life things in history and current events.... LOL!! It also took me about 1/2 to 3/4 of the book to really start to connect to most of the characters.

The other thing is that I expected to find some great insights into faith and related philosophy and, for me, it wasn't as significant as I thought it would be. I did take away some thoughtful little nuggets. But I guess I had just expected more and wanted it to be life changing for me too. That being said, I also think that there is a lot to talk about and I think that after discussing things with other readers I would maybe come away with more. There were horrific things in this book and some of it did seem extreme. I understand that the extreme nature was maybe necessary to emphasize the point of Emilio's bitterness, but yikes! There was one part that did make me cry having to do with one of the kids on Rakhat. I usually consider something in a book affecting me like that as a good thing.

So for these reasons, I was pretty torn and had mixed thoughts after finishing the book. The book itself was good... yes, and overall I did enjoy reading it. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. Only to those who very genuinely have an interest in this book and topic. I have found in reading the reviews on the book sites that this is one of those books people either LOVE or HATE. Obviously, I don't fall into either extreme, I seem to be the exception! There is a sequel, Children of God. I am curious what happens, but I'm feeling so/so about reading it again. Then again, I did invest all that time in learning about that world so maybe I should go for it. :)

And just an interesting thought I had while reading this; in some ways, this reminded me of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett which I loved. They're both about traveling to a foreign environment for research and controversial issues about the culture that is encountered. Anyway, just had to throw that in there!



Ti said...

Yes, the idea of traveling to an alien planet with an unknown species was rather thrilling from a scientific standpoint. I think had I not be strung along through the entire book, I would have like it a lot more. Like you, I didn't hate or love it. I fall right in the middle but I think I could have loved it had I not felt jerked around.

Trish said...

Have you read Lu's thoughts yet? She was reading this for the second time and it sounds like her first time was a bit like yours--not really being able to wrap her head around what it all means and feeling rather conflicted about her thoughts. I definitely didn't feel any sort of breakthrough (I'm non-religious and this book did not make me a believer) but I did love the way that faith and religion were portrayed throughout the book.

I've also wondered about some of the specifics about the culture. I think they're all outlined for a reason--to help us understand a bit more why what happened happened...but most of it was too smart for me, I think. ;)

Thanks for reading along Jenny!

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