Monday, October 25, 2010

Read The Sparrow

You know all those questions I'm always asking, and you maybe are, too-- questions about God, and God's will, questions about evil, questions about doing the right thing and how to live in the lap of God and What Does It All Mean and Can It Really Mean Anything? I just read an astonishing book that asks all those questions, and hints at answers to some of them, and will blow your head apart: Mary Doria Russell's brilliant, disturbing, enthralling novel, The Sparrow.

I don't have time to write a proper review, so I just want to implore you, if you have ever wondered how there could exist a loving God or a divine plan in the midst of suffering, death, and horror: read this book. If you ever wondered how people could be so craven or unimaginative as to use myths of divine purpose to explain evil, read this book. If you just love a good story, love to see a writer strut her stuff, love the way someone like H.P. Lovecraft can build and build a sense of dread to the point of delirium, love the way someone like Elmore Leonard can weave the strands of a tale into a dizzying Persian rug, or love the way someone like Hermann Hesse or Ursula K. Le Guin or J.G. Ballard or Monique Wittig or Ralph Ellison can permanently alter your vision, then read this book. If you've had your reader's heart broken by Dorothy Allison or James Baldwin or Rachel Ingalls, had them burn a story onto your mind like a smoking afterimage while you sit there stunned, in tears, wishing with some medium-sized part of you that you'd never picked up the book in the first place, and you still have the guts to risk it again, then read this book.

The Sparrow re-imagines the first contact of European explorers with the New World: in the year 2019, the interception of music broadcast from Alpha Centauri leads to the formation of a secret, charmingly DIY space mission. A small group of well-intentioned humans (not a conquistador among them) land on the planet Rakhat, where, as you have already guessed, very little is what it seems. Though the mission is sponsored by the Society of Jesus, the participants have varying levels of faith, from zero to mystic, and so all kinds of readers-- atheists, mystics, those in between, and those who aren't sure what they believe-- will find in these pages someone to identify with and a whole lot to push their buttons. The narrative cuts suspensefully, and finally relentlessly, between the mission to Rakhat and the official investigation, decades later, into the mission's disastrous end. Both on Rakhat and on Earth, Russell forces us, Ludovico-style, to witness the struggle within the heart and mutilated body of the mission's only survivor, a priest accused of murder and sexual deviance and blamed for the failure of humankind's first contact with another world. As characters on both worlds see their certainties crumble like the geocentric model of the cosmos, you will find your own certainties -- about what it means to love, what it means to be human, what it means to have faith-- gloriously troubled.

The Sparrow isn't just a novel about faith or love or colonialism (with echoes of the Holocaust--Russell, who is Jewish, was influenced by Rabbi Arthur Green); it's about families, social structures, trust, art, brutality, terror, mystery, courage, despair... in short, like every great novel, it's about everything. In a world where more and more of us crave simpler and simpler myths about this staggeringly complex universe, a work like this is a treasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment