Many thanks to Annabee and Kevin C., both of whom recommended this book to me – you two need to give me more recommendations! Third book finished on vacation 08/22/07 (405 pp.).
I had no idea what I was getting into with The Sparrow. The various blurbs on the book jacket were a little hyperbolic: “startling … engrossing … important … moral …” Hold on - moral? I thought this was science fiction! Nonplussed, I settled in to read and quickly affirmed that yes, this novel is about establishing first contact with an alien race on their home planet. However, since the away team consists of four Jesuit priests (the theory being that since the Jesuits were notable explorers on earth historically, their missionary experience would come in handy in space) and four laypersons (including two women), clearly this wasn’t going to be your standard E.T. stuff. I was intrigued.
Russell employs two narrative threads: one recounting the ill-fated expedition via the memories of the lone survivor; the other limning the story of the survivor, Father Emilio Sandoz, and his physical and psychic struggles in the aftermath of the expedition. I liked the two-narrative structure; as a Lost and Heroes fan, I have a soft spot for flashbacks. However, I think the author spent too long on the pre-expedition story and shortchanged us slightly once we got to the new planet.
I did appreciate the time Russell took developing the friendships among Sandoz and the four non-Jesuits, providing the reader with interesting and sympathetic characters. Their interrelationships are finely and leisurely drawn, as we see Sandoz meeting and learning to love Anne (a physician who was a Latin student of the priest's), George (Anne's husband and an engineer), Jimmy (the gangly astronomer who discovered the alien life) and Sofia (a computer savant with a sordid childhood). But the other three Jesuit priests who are also on the expedition scarcely get introduced and, once the explorers land on planet Rakhat and things begin to fall apart, the story seems incredibly rushed. This, perhaps, is a device meant to demonstrate Sandoz's survivor's guilt and his need to not drag out the retelling of his painful tale, but I rather think it was more a case of a first time novelist realizing she had to wrap up an already lengthy book.
In addition to the compelling characters and adventuresome (if unevenly paced) plot, The Sparrow brings with it discussions of human nature and the nature of God, the impact first contact can have on an indigenous population (good intentions of the newcomers notwithstanding), and the dismantling of faith and of moral and cultural assumptions. I am not much for organized religion myself - although I can appreciate that others are - and I prefer to get my ecumenical education in doses like this: educated, entertaining and touched with the fantastical (i.e. not preachy).
Kevin C. has promised me that the sequel, Children of God, is an even better novel than this one, Russell having toned and tightened her writing style. I was impressed with this first attempt - now I'm eager to hitch a ride for the return to Rakhat.
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