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The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell

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Author: Mary Doria Russell / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 November 1997 / Genre: Science Fiction / Subcategory: Science Fiction General / Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd / Title: The Sparrow / ISBN 13: 9780552997775 / ISBN 10: 0552997775

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      05.05.2011 22:22
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      But the sparrow still falls.

      This was a book which was recommended and lent to me by my vicar as he thought it was something which I would really enjoy. Now, I'm never one to turn a recommendation down, particularly one from the vicar, and it did look fairly interesting so I settled down to begin reading it. I very quickly found myself completely hooked. This is without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read with an amazing combination of being funny, moving, insightful and absolutely horrifying in turns. It is a beautifully written book that was published about 15 years ago, but I would beg you not to be put off by the time span in which it was written because I can easily say that it is still both a brilliant book and a gripping read.

      '"I can tell you that in a survey of five hundred celibates, four hundred and ninety-eight of them said that they masturbated."
      "What about the other two?"
      "Elementary, dear Watson. From their response we may deduce that they have no arms."'

      It is 2017 and exquisite music is intercepted by radio telescope. This strange and wonderful music is tracked by Jimmy Quinn to a previously unknown world which becomes known as Rakhat. The UN diplomats are debating amongst themselves whether it is worth spending human resources to reach this new world and try to make contact with its inhabitants. The Society of Jesus on the other hand are asking a completely different set of questions; how soon can the mission be attempted and who should they send?

      It is 2060 and the remains of the exploratory mission to Rakhat have returned to earth. It is facing a trial for crimes committed in Rakhat. Serious crimes. All the Jesuit church and court wants is to find out is the truth. The world may be crying out for blood and the press may be gathered around their door, but the Jesuits are willing too offer forgiveness, absolution and compassion. But they can't be prepared for the truth that comes out.

      "They went so that they might come to know and love Christ's other children. They went for the reason that Jesuits have always gone to the furthest frontiers of human exploration. Hey went for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm."

      The structure of this book flicks between 2017 with the exploration and the court case in 2060, but it is also interspersed with the back story of many of the characters, in particular Emilio Sandoz. Emilio is a Jesuit priest who was one of the group who went to Rakhat and much of the actual story of what happened in Rakhat is told through flashbacks from Sandoz, who survived the expedition to return to earth. It takes a fair amount of skill to make this kind of structure work as it could easily become messy and difficult to follow, let alone understand. However, Mary Doria Russell has managed to write it in such a way that you always know exactly where you are and which time-line you are reading at any point in time. She has also managed to ensure that you are never bored by any section of the book no matter which time-line you are in at any given moment in time.

      Sandoz is a trained linguist who has come back from Rakhat damaged both physically and psychologically. He is amazingly quick at putting together new languages and is able to learn them quickly and accurately. Over the years he has spent working for the Jesuit church he has made contacts both in the church and outside it. Anne and her husband are two of his closest friends and his relationship with them borders on a parental relationship that he has never found anywhere else. Anne is a highly respected doctor and George is an experienced engineer, and the pattern is followed with many of his other friends, as they are all very skilled in their area of expertise. Jimmy is an experienced young technician, D.W is a priest with a large amount of experience both in military matters and in matters of the clergy, and Sofia is an amazing young woman who is a bit of a jack of all trades. Sandoz comes to the conclusion that only God's will could have brought them all together, particularly as this is a group of people with such unique skills and experiences. They are the perfect group to go to Rakhat.

      "He had not merely been the first human being to step foot on Rakhat, had not simply explored parts of its largest continent and learned two of it's languages and loved some of it's people. He had also discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly to fear God."

      This book is officially classed as science fiction and I wouldn't disagree with that as it has all the necessary ingredients for a good sci-fi; outer space, a new planet and a realistic view of science (as far as I can tell at any rate!). My only issue with calling this book a sci-fi is that this seems to be an overly simplistic view of a book that is as complex and as multi-dimensional as this one. It is science fiction, but at the same time it is a treatise on faith, God and humanity...with a small amount of politics thrown in for form's sake.

      The priesthood has a saying that is brought up several times throughout the novel and that is 'Deus vult, Pater', which is basically God's will be done or God wills it. This is kind of used as the motto for the book to hang around as in the beginning sections of the novel this seems to make sense, but as the novel progresses and things start to all go wrong the saying appears to become more and more ironic. At points it is said with true meaning, and at other points it is thrown around with hatred and sarcasm. And the book is based around this; the characters are all from various religious views and this motto follows through for most of the characters in different ways. In a way it is this idea that makes the book so touching and thought provoking when everything goes horribly wrong, as Maria Doria Russell is almost debating the theology of evil and the nature of God. As the reader you feel a great deal of sympathy for Emilio, and the book has covered the topic with an amazing amount of empathy and sensitivity. It is a book that no matter what your faith, or whether you have one, it will touch you and leave you with something that you will not be able to forget.

      So yes, this is a sci-fi, but it is also a book exploring the depths of human nature and human endurance. It is a book about a single group of people and how one man was pushed to the absolute limits of his faith and beyond, but it is also a book that touches on all of us. How we respond when pushed beyond our endurance and how we see the world. Because the characters all come from such different backgrounds there will always be something that impacts on us as a reader. It is a book of theology, but at the same time it is just an amazing story where the characters come to life. But whatever praise you can heap on the book, the biggest praise from me is that it is realistic. It is not just a fairy tale story where the princess always marries the prince.

      "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 was real and true, then the rest of it was God's will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. The problem with atheism, is that I have no one to despise but myself."

      This is a beautiful, wonderful book which slowly moves towards a conclusion which the reader can almost but not quite see coming. The subtlety as Mary Doria Russell builds and hints but never quite tells is astounding, and then just as brilliantly she can land a thump to your gut and leave you gasping. At points the content is not the easiest to read, but you will not be able to put it down and sections of it will haunt you for a long time afterwards. Several years after reading it for the first time I could still quote sections and I can honestly say that it has impacted heavily on my theology.

      This is a book that I would recommend with every fibre of my body. It is a book that will touch everybody in different ways. I will leave you with a biblical quote which I find very relevant.

      Matthew ten, verse twenty nine.
      "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing."

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