Mary Doria Russell
The thing about The Sparrow is that from the very beginning that the mission is doomed to fail, even before we know what the mission is. Father Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit priest, will be the only survivor of a mission to Rakhat. Before we know who will accompany Father Sandoz, or why, we know they don’t survive. This is, of course, and automatic interest piquer. What happened? What could leave Father Sandoz an utterly broken man?
And what does the title mean? I don’t often wonder about titles, but I wondered about this one.
Mary Doria Russell tells two stories in The Sparrow. What I consider to be the primary story is the aftermath, when Emilio Sandoz has returned to Earth from Rakhat in 2060 and is dealing with what happened. In the Aftermath, the reader is never given the perspective of Father Sandoz. The perspective the reader has, which is a limited third person perspective, is of the other senior Jesuit priests as they gently (mostly) probe Father Sandoz and also try to heal the man from his ordeal. When I called Father Sandoz “an utterly broken man” the description was regarding his emotional state, but Emilio Sandoz was also left without the ability to use his hands. He was physically broken on Rakhat. Throughout the novel the reader gets deeper and deeper into what happened. Early on, though Sandoz is not forthcoming, one set of assumptions can be made regarding what took place on Rakhat. Almost without exception, whatever that first assumption is, it’ll be wrong.
The secondary story is the gathering of the “fellowship”, the discovery of Rakhat, the travel to the planet, and what happens on the ground. I consider this to be the secondary story simply because I found it less interesting than that of the emotionally broken Sandoz. This story introduces all the primary characters of the novel – the ones fated to join Sandoz on the mission to Rakhat and thus ultimately doomed. What we don’t know from the start is how.
One might think that with foreknowledge that everything ends in disaster and scandal and misery that The Sparrow would be a gloomy book. It’s not. Even knowing from the start how Sandoz ends up, so much of The Sparrow feels borderline triumphant and filled with grace. The continual switching of time from “past” to “present” reminds the reader that any feeling of triumph or grace should be tempered with the understanding of how it all ends, but the feeling persists.
The thing is, The Sparrow is a beautiful and painful story. Perhaps knowing how the mission ends before it begins is part of what makes the doom bearable. The loss and death and failures are still shocking, but not unexpected. How can they be? The beauty and the grace and the pain is in the telling. Russell tells it well.
The Sparrow is an emotional novel. Mary Doria Russell does a masterful job unfolding the story and allows the reader to care for characters she states up front are doomed. The novel demands an emotional response. I most appreciate the emotional response The Sparrow evoked when I read the novel.
This brings us back to the title. The Sparrow. Given that the novel prominently features Jesuits, and thus Christianity, the use of the word “sparrow” immediately brings to mind the song “his eye is on the sparrow and I know he is watching me”. It also is an affirmation that God knows everything that occurs, that not even a sparrow falls without God seeing. The real question is whether The Sparrow, the novel, is condemnation or affirmation of that belief. Ultimately it is neither. It depends on perspective, on who is looking and who is judging. It also leads to this passage, late in the novel:
"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Guiliani said quietly. " 'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it' "
"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.
Normally I would not include that quote because it speaks to the ultimate theme of the novel, but it does so after more than 300 pages of discovery and revelation. I include the quote because if we think about it, we know the sparrow falls from the beginning of the novel. The mission to Rakhat is doomed with only one survivor, a Jesuit priest now disgraced in the public eye because of the nature of his fall. The sparrow still falls.
But oh, what a fall.