Friday, 6 March 2015

The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell

Cover from Goodreads
Blurb (from Goodreads):
In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being "human". Words like "provocative" and "compelling" will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.

My thoughts:
This was another interesting book to review. The story transitions back and forth between the 'current time' (2059 - 2060) and the 'past' (2019). [Come to think of it, I have been reading a few books lately that use this writing style!] 

What I liked about The Sparrow was the storyline in general. It was sufficiently complex; and the description of Rakhat and the races that inhabit it was well written to the point that I could picture myself in this strange new world.

I also liked the characterization in the novel. The main character, Emilio, is interesting. His life, in all timeframes of the storyline, is complicated. He returns to Earth the lone survivor of the first expedition to Rakhat and, in the beginning, it feels like he is being harshly interrogated about what happened in Rakhat. We are given glimpses of what happens as the story advances but it all becomes crashingly clear towards the end of the book. For me, this is about Emilio's journey towards reconciliation with the demons that have plagued him and this is what makes this book compelling and heart-rendering. It isn't about Christianity, despite what some readers will think, and neither is it about the Jesuit Society wanting answers.

"'I had a dream last night,' he said quietly. 'I was on a road and there was no one with me. And in the dream I said, "I don't understand but I can learn if you will teach me." Do you suppose anyone was listening?'"

The other characters in the expedition to Rakhat are also likeable. They are all different but they blend well together and become good friends. And this is when I start about what I didn't like about The Sparrow... [minor spoiler alert - you may want to stop reading now]

I don't want to give too much away but the other members of Emilio's expedition face very abrupt and very gruesome ends. I normally can reason with myself if a character I like is one way or another terminated from the storyline but....... I felt in these cases, they weren't written off very well. One minute these characters we've come to like are there, the next they are gone and are explained away. Maybe it's better it was done in this fashion considering how they leave us 'but but but' is all I can say *sad face*.

This brings me to the next thing. Emilio has experienced a lot and especially so in Rakhat. And what he goes through is tough; tough for him and very difficult to read. Difficult to read particularly because these parts were written so well. This appears, I know, to be in juxtaposition to what I wrote in the last paragraph. Emilio's anger and grief is so palpable and the circumstances so harsh, I nearly couldn't continue reading because I was just feeling so much for Emilio. In a way it's a complement to Mary Doria Russell to be able to bring such feelings to life but at the same time it was too much for me to take.

Recommendation: I was really unsure how I wanted to rate this.  A part of me thought it deserved more but in the end, I felt the things I didn't like weighed much more prominently in my mind.

*I read this book as part of the Sword and Laser January book of the month. This review has also been profiled on Goodreads.

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