‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell

the-sparrowstarstarstarstarAnne Kingman (Books on the Nightstand) was asked on her podcast what her favourite book of all time was. To a reader that’s like asking you to pick your favourite child! When pressed she picked The Sparrow. When asked what it was about, she had to reply, “Jesuits in space!” That got my attention and it’s been on my TBR pile now for years. I finally got around to reading it, and I’m so glad that I did!

Winner of the 1996 Arthur C. Clarke award, it truly is about a Jesuit mission to outer space, but it is so much more than that. Don’t take a pass if you are not a sci-fi fan. I’m not either, but I loved this book. It is a beautifully described, well paced, thoughtful, often humorous, and imaginative literary novel. Wiki calls it “a visionary work that combines speculative fiction with deep philosophical inquiry”…and it’s a page turner! The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, after haunting music is transmitted from Alpha Centauri, but a series of small misunderstandings brings the expedition to a catastrophic end.

Emilio Sandoz is in a hospital in Rome, being questioned about the quest that he was the only survivor from. And he is not talking. What he has experienced was so traumatic that it will take some time and healing before he is ready to explain what happened. This results in tantalizing small reveals in regular doses for the reader, keeping the tension and building the suspense as well as giving empathy for this man’s own personal journey. The story is told in framed flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz’ interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest.

There was a definite resemblance to more recent novels by Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life and The People in the Trees. If you like her books, which are usually described as dark and emotionally devastating (but in a good way), you’ll love this one and vice versa. The Sparrow does have a sequel called Children of God which I’ve heard is equally good. If you have read these two already and want more from Russell, she also has two historical novels set in the West (following Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to Tombstone, Arizona, and to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral), Doc and Epitaph.

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