There seems to be a niche for a particular type of story: the suffering of Jesuit missionaries. There was Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission, Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence (with a recent Martin Scorcese film adaptation), and here I am reviewing Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This could be well on its way to becoming a phenomenon. Given enough time, it could even grow into a genre. Keep an eye on the aisles of your local bookstore.
Forgive the tongue in my cheek. But I can’t help notice a running thread. This kind of story is indeed nothing new. Russell puts a different spin on the idea by making the mission field…rather farther afield than usual. The Jesuit mission in her story is heading for an alien planet.
In 2059, an expedition by the Society of Jesus to the newly discovered world of Rakhat has just ended in disaster and scandal. Father Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor, has returned to Earth a physically and psychologically broken man. What the disaster was and why it should be so scandalous is left a mystery to be revealed by telling the whole story of the mission in flashback.
The ‘present’ timeframe, in which Father John Candotti tries to be a counsellor and caretaker to Sandoz, alternates with flashbacks telling the origins of the Rakhat mission at the Arecibo Observatory and what brings Sandoz there. It’s a slow burn of a story that at times reminds one of a detective novel in the way that small hints foreshadow the final revelations, and Russell’s craftsmanship kept me turning pages.
Still, for much of the book, I found it difficult to get a grasp on what the story was ‘about’ in any thematic sense. It came highly recommended, and I was trying to make sense of why everyone who saw me carrying it under my arm commented on how wonderful it was. I began the book in the late fall and had to pause for a long time because of school; perhaps the disconnect made me lose track. I was interested enough to find out what happened next, but the second half was read largely out of a sense of obligation.
Like a detective novel, the book started off in mystery. And also like a detective novel, the book ended–at least for me–with revelation. Revelation not so much in terms of what happens as in why, not so much in terms of plot as in meaning. The imagery used in the harrowing final chapter illuminated the truth that Russell had hidden under my nose the entire time: the reality of following God and doing His will leads to suffering and the way of the cross.
The Sparrow is a piece of spiritual science fiction that handles that truth with force and power, where other Christian novels tend to back into the safety net of sentimentality. Mary Doria Russell is among those authors who have walked fearlessly where the simpering doe-eyed angels fear to tread. The plot may be about exploring a strange new world, but the novel explores territory ancient and common in the human search for God: How do we find goodness in the midst of suffering? Why does faithful obedience always seem to lead to pain? And why, if God sees the fall of even the smallest sparrow, does He still let it fall?