The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
This is not a new novel, but one that my new-found friend, Verna Wilder, recommended. A new author for me, and discovery is always exciting, even when it disappoints. In this case, it didn’t.
It is 2059, and an astronomer picks up what is unconditionally music from SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) radio transmissions. While governments try to decide what to do about the signals, the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, decides to fund a mission to the planet from which the music (almost divine in sound) originates. For the greater Glory of God. The instigator of the mission, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz, is the best linguist on Earth and unsure about the strenght of his beliefs.
What follows is an incredibly powerful story about first contact and the search for a confirmation of the existence of God. Reminiscent in its elegance and subtlety of prose of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Russell’s Sparrow takes us into a journey of discovery in which the dangers and rigours of first contact begin to erode the faith of those who should believe in God without question, the four Jesuits on the mission. The increasing emotional and physical isolation of the group on a strange world parallels the protagonist’s alienation and sense of betrayal from his God. Her are people, facing one horror after another, and trying to understand, in human terms, the “why” of God. In the end, however, the reader is left with deciding on his own the validity of God’s existence, and maybe to accept the futility of assigning human comprehension and compassion to something unfathomable.
Sparrow is not a religious or a Christian novel. It is a novel about the physical, emotional and spiritual arrogance and frailty of humanity, and its struggle to reach for the divine, regardless of faith, or lack of it. Sparrow is a sensitive, forceful, fascinating page-turner that remains with the reader for days afterward.
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