The first few chapters of The Sparrow were confusing and in turn, boring because I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I would have put another book down, but my husband and several friends had read this book and liked it, so I stuck with it.
The Sparrow takes the reader on several journeys; a journey to the future and a journey to another planet, as well as a spiritual journey. The chapters in the book alternate between the year 2060 and 2020. The main character is a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz, a man who grew up on the rough streets of Puerto Rico and turned to the priesthood as an escape. The other characters are the people involved in his life, but it is Emilio who is at the center of the story and the reader becomes most intimate with his struggles.
The book is written by an omniscient narrator allowing the reader to know a lot about everything, including the interior thoughts of all the characters. Despite this all-encompassing knowledge, the reader is held rapt by a mystery. The existence of this mystery is exposed in the beginning of the book. Emilio has arrived back on earth in 2060, after a fifty year absence. He has been on an expedition to a far away planet with six others, but he has returned disfigured, barely alive and not talking about what has happened to him or his fellow explorers.
The chapters taking place in 2060 tell the story of Emilio’s continued fight to come to terms with what has happened to him and his superiors struggle to obtain the truth behind the ill-fated mission. In the author’s vision of the future, the Jesuits have become powerful and are the decision makers as well as dictators of economics, politics and research. Jesuits had mandated the original undertaking to the planet and the crew included four Jesuits priests. The mission was as much a missionary trip as a scientific operation.
There is just enough character development in the story to keep the reader interested in what happens to each of them. Of course, each character represents a stereotype, the liberal sixty-something couple, the exceptionally stunning and brilliant woman who is emotionally paralyzed by dark secrets from her past, the geeky scientist, the pious priest and so on and so forth. Emilio’s character is most intriguing because he seems to defy stereotyping. Where the other characters seem to happily fit into their perspective molds and roles, Emilio relentlessly strives to understand where and how he fits into the universe and the reader cannot help become wrapped up in his questions.
Once the reader has immersed herself in the pages of The Sparrow, it is a hard book to put down due in part to the mystery that is continually dangled in front of the reader. Thankfully, all is eventually revealed, but not until the last chapters. I became bogged down around the middle of the book, but my desire to know the answer to the mystery kept me reading at a furious pace.
The story is well written, though sometimes a bit loose, meaning I would have edited out a few parts, because some paragraphs did not move the story forward in any meaningful way. At several points during the story, the author’s modern-day political views come across loud and clear and I thought this was distracting and completely unnecessary, but it is her prerogative. There is a follow-up book, Children of God, which is not surprising because Mary Doria Russell has struck on a unique theme, mixing science fiction and religion in a tumultuous marriage.
Because of its exploration of faith, along with a compelling mystery and uncommon setting, many people will find the story of The Sparrow truly absorbing even if they don’t care for science fiction.