Cover of The Sparrow: A Novel
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell-Two weeks ago, in a bit of a mini review, I said, "Right now, I am about half-way through, and I am dreading finding out what happens because this is one of those books that lets you know right up front that Things Did Not Go Well, and already I love the people involved and I so want things to go well for them, but I know that they don't, and it is heartbreaking." Well, kids, it remains heartbreaking, right through to the very end.
First, let me say, I loved this book. This is one of those books that makes other books pale in comparison, only I didn't realize it at the time (more on this when I post my review of The Gargoyle). I added this title to my TBR list four years (four years!) ago, and I am so glad that I finally decided to read it.
You get a sense of foreboding right from the start. The Prologue reads, in part:
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. [That's beautiful. What a noble mission!]
They meant no harm. [Oh dear.]
Like I said, you know up front that Things Did Not Go Well. In 2021, eight people embark on a mission to Rakhat, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, to investigate the source of the musical broadcasts that have been discovered emanating from that system. The mission is funded by the Jesuit Society and consists of four Jesuits and four civilians.
In 2059, Father Emilio Sandoz, the only surviving member of the party, is released from hospital, still physically and mentally ravaged from his mission, and moved to a Jesuit residence. Here he will be asked to explain what happened during the mission, to tell what happened to the other members of the party, and to explain the reports from the rescue party that paint him as a whore and a murderer.
The story bounces back between the "present day" in 2059/2060, and the time period between 2016 and...2042(?), from the time that the extraterrestrial music is discovered to the time Emilio Sandoz is rescued and taken off of Rakhat.
I don't even know what else to say about this book. I loved it so much. I don't want to say anything to make you not read it, and I want to say everything I can to make you read it, and then I don't want anybody to read it and not love it.
This is sci-fi, but what I would consider sci-fi lite. It's a story about cultural exploration, it just happens to be in another solar system. Yes, there is space travel and crazy, other-worldly creatures, and they have weird names, but it's not over the top, and I never felt overwhelmed by the foreign-ness of it all.
Speaking of foreign-ness, Emilio Sandoz grew up in the slums of Puerto Rico, and is not exactly what you might consider a traditional candidate for the priesthood. He grew up fighting and selling drugs and ended up in parochial school as a way to avoid jail. He surprised himself by liking certain aspects of his religious life and, although faith and prayer were never his strong suits, he entered the novitiate at age seventeen. He acknowledged his weaknesses and continued to pray, taking comfort in the words of his mentor, D.W. Yarbrough, who told him, 'Son, sometimes it's enough just to act less like a shithead.' And by that kindly if inelegant standard, Emilio Sandoz could believe himself to be a man of God.
Emilio is an extremely skilled linguist, and this comes in quite handy when the Jesuits are looking for someone to make contact with our new celestial neighbors. Throughout his life as a priest, Emilio remains agnostic, and as the mission begins to take shape he finally starts to think that perhaps there is something to this God thing. At one point, he sits down to talk to his good friend and shipmate, Anne, about what is going on in his head. There were a million things that had to go just right for everyone to come together as a part of this mission, and beyond all reasonable hope, they did.
So. Things kept happening, just like God was really there, making it all happen. And I heard myself saying Deus vult, [God wills it] like Marc, but it still seemed like some kind of huge joke. And then one night, I just let myself consider the possibility that this is what it seems to be. That something extraordinary is happening. That God has something in mind for me. Besides sewer lines, I mean...And a lot of the time, even now, I think I must be a lunatic and this whole thing is crazy. But sometimes--Anne, there are times when I can let myself believe, and when I do," he said, voice dropping to a whisper and his hands, resting on his knees, opening, as though to reach for something, "it's amazing. Inside me, everything makes sense, everything I've done, everything that ever happened to me--it was all leading up to this, to where we are right now. But, Anne, it's frightening and I don't know why..."
She waited to see if he had more but when he fell silent, she decided to take a shot in the dark. "You know what's the most terrifying thing about admitting that you're in love?" she asked him. "You are just naked. You put yourself in harm's way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you."
He looked at her, astounded. "Yes. Exactly. That's how it feels, when I let myself believe. Like I am falling in love and like I am naked before God. And it is terrifying, as you say. But it has started to feel like I am being rude and ungrateful, do you understand? To keep on doubting. That God loves me. Personally." He snorted, half in disbelief and half in astonishment, and put his hands over his mouth for a moment and then pulled them away. "Does that sound arrogant? Or just crazy? To think that God loves me."
As the mission unfolds, Emilio begins to see more and more of the proof he has been searching for for so long. He finally believes, he knows that God is out there and that he has a plan for everybody and that his life's work has led him to this place in his life where he can finally fulfill God's plan. This is what he was put on Earth, given life, to do. He has finally, completely, accepted God and God's love. And then things go terribly, terribly wrong. When all the terrible details of the mission have finally been revealed in Emilio's 2060 debriefing, Father John Candotti utters a horrified, "My God," and Emilio responds:
Do you think so, John? Was it your God?" he asked with terrifying gentleness. "You see, that is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn't it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances," he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, "is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious then at least I have the solace of hating God."
Emilio's journey from doubt to belief to shattered faith is both heart-warming and harrowing, and despite all the doom and gloom I did actually feel like this book ended on a hopeful note. A tiny, quiet, whimpering note, but a hopeful one no less. I did have one issue with this book, but I feel like it's a bit of a spoiler to talk about it, not like it will make the book not worth reading or anything, but you know. So, don't read between the stars if you don't want to know what happened.
Okay, so the thing, THE event that finally totally shattered Emilio's faith. I understand why it had that effect on him, but the fact of the matter is, he's not the only person who's ever been raped. Granted, he's probably the only person to ever experience it in that manner, but people, good, God-fearing people, are raped left and right on Earth every day. Why did it take it happening to Emilio to make him question God so? He's a compassionate man, and, growing up and then working in the area that he did, I'm sure he was no stranger to tales of rape. Why would a God that allows that to happen to His people on Earth be any less deplorable to Emilio than one who allows it to happen to Emilio? Did anyone else have an issue with this? If so, were you able to come to any good resolution?
Okay, well, I'd love to hear from anyone else who has read this. I'd especially like to hear how it affected people of different beliefs. It's probably no secret to anyone who is familiar with my blog that I'm pretty definitely agnostic. I think it's just as big a leap of faith to claim with 100% certainty that there is no God as it is to declare with 100% certainty that there is a God, and, quite frankly, I just don't know. This book did not help clear things up one little bit, but it did make me feel, deeply, and that's why I loved it.
Chris at Rude Cactus (It's only a one-liner, but it still gets the point across. Yeah, I know, I could take a lesson.)
Ann and Michael at Books on the Nightstand talk about The Sparrow in their podcast. Review starts around 4:57.
Have you reviewed The Sparrow? Let me know and I'll add a link to your review.