Nikki 's Reviews > The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
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's review
Feb 01, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: philosophy, speculative-fiction
Read in February, 2009

"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "’Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’"

"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.

That quote is essentially a summary of the entire book, and also essential to understand why the title is what it is.

It's hard to know what to make of The Sparrow. It's a journey in many ways: from wanting faith to having faith, from having faith to belief without trust that I hesitate to call faith, from our planet to another, from ignorance to understanding. The journey, for the most part, is that of Emilio Sandoz, but a lot of the other characters have their own journeys to make, and so does the reader.

The narrator is omniscient, which I generally don't like but didn't trouble me too much here. It's quite well done, I think: despite the omniscient narrator, I still felt close to the characters. My only problem is the way all the deaths were dealt with: they struck me with a kind of numbness, instead of feeling sad. But that might indeed have been the intention.

The characters who are human do seem very human. They make mistakes, they make dumb decisions, they argue, they fail at the worst possible times. They also have compassion and curiosity, so that their mistakes are understandable. The idea of the first mission to another planet being a Jesuit mission is ridiculous, in one way, and then also not at all surprising. Because it's a mission based largely on faith rather than science, the mistakes are all the more understandable, even if the trust in God seems ridiculous. Emilio's slow healing and also his refusal to heal are done well. The way he's presented to the reader when he's young makes you love him, which makes his situation later in the story compelling instead of, as the other priests originally see it, disgusting and contemptible.

The actual plot ends up not being all that surprising. The big reveal at the end isn't needed as a plot twist -- you've already guessed, by that point, what happened to Emilio -- but as a kind of closure for the story: finally, he admits what happened to him, and perhaps the journey can go on.

This might seem at times like a story that advocates atheism, but I don't think so. I haven't read the sequel, Children of God, yet, but the story seems to be much more about the sparrow God sees, and knows, and loves, but still doesn't prevent from falling. The Sparrow is a novel about the big question for believers: if there is a God, how could He allow terrible things to happen?

It does not answer the question, by the way.
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Quotes Nikki Liked

Mary Doria Russell
“The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne's are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

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