I loved so many things about this novel. Russell writes with an easy authority which pulled me along throughout. The characters are well-drawn and likable and their interactions with one another ring true. The logistics of organizing and executing an expedition to a planet in another solar system are rendered believably, with appropriate attentions to the details that are interesting and appropriate glossings over of the details that would grow wearisome. Perhaps most importantly, issues of faith are handled with care and grace.
I so loved all of these aspects of the novel, and I so enjoyed reading the book, that my fairly profound disappointment with the ending only dims my assessment of the book by the light of a half star.
Russell comes at her story from two directions: we begin with Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, who has been brought back to Earth physically and emotionally broken, the only surviving member of the Jesuit-led expedition to the planet Rakhat, which SETI activities had identified as a planet with sentient life. Over a number of months, members of the Jesuit order nurse Sandoz back to health and attempt to discover exactly what happened on Rakhat. This narrative (I'll call it the Jesuit Narrative) intertwines with the story (call it the Expedition Narrative) of the earlier events leading to Emilio's current condition: the discovery of radio waves from Rakhat, the plans for the expedition, and the expedition itself.
The Sparrow contains many themes, but one of the most prevalent is that of the nature of God and faith in the face of an unknowable God. This theme plays out primarily in the character of Emilio, who believes from early on that the mission to Rakhat is the will of God and that he and his companions have been specifically chosen by God to man the expedition. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Emilio has lost his faith in God and that this loss is a direct result of something awful that happened to him on Rakhat. While The Sparrow is at least as much an exploration of first contact with alien species as it is anything else, much of the forward thrust of the book stems from the question "What awful, apparently unspeakable, thing happened to Emilio?"
We are told early on, through the Jesuit Narrative, that Emilio was found, by members of a second expedition to Rakhat, living a debased life as a prostitute on Rakhat and that he killed a child without provocation in the sight of human witnesses. We also know right from the start that Emilio is the only member of the original eight-member expedition to survive. So the questions "How do the others die?" and "How does Emilio end up a prostitute?" cannot help but inform one's reading of the entire novel. The simple answer to both of these questions is "Through not understanding, despite their best efforts, the cultures of the people of Rakhat." Obviously, one can say much more about the events than that, and The Sparrow does, and does so well. As an illustration of how first contact can go wrong, of how genuinely good intentions do not always yield good outcomes, of how observers necessarily alter the observed, this novel soars.
Where it falls is in the resolution of the theme surrounding faith--and it is this theme in which I think the book is most invested. (From here on, I am decidedly spoilery.) The novel convinces me completely that Emilio is a man of devout faith. I believe in his belief, and I believe in the other characters' belief that Emilio has been touched by God throughout the mission, that he is becoming saintly. But the awful, unspeakable thing that happens to Emilio fails to convince me that it would destroy this man's faith.
As the novel comes to a close, things start to fall apart for the Jesuit Expedition. One of the party died months earlier from causes unknown. Just as all seems to be going quite well, two members of the party are killed and eaten by VaHaptaa, lawless raiders of the Jana'ata, the ruling species on Rakhat. Emilio is the one who finds his friends' remains and buries them. Then the expedition learns that the Runa, the gentle, somewhat simple but sentient species with which they have been living, are bred by the Jana'ata, not just as servants, but as a meat source. Three more members of the expedition are killed when they try to incite the Runa to an uprising against Jana'ata military members who have come to cull the herd. Emilio and fellow priest Marc Robichaux, the only members of the expedition left, are taken captive and forced to march with the ranks. The only food they are offered is Runa meat. Marc refuses to eat and eventually dies of starvation. Emilio, numbed by all of the awful things that have happened to him, does eat, and survives. Eventually he is sold to a Jana'ata prince as an exotic sexual partner.
It is the moment that Emilio is first raped by the prince that he focuses on as the moment, the moment when he lost his faith. This is the thing of which he cannot speak, the thing about which he has nightmares, the thing which must be almost cruelly battered from him by the other priests in order to allow room for any possibility of catharsis and healing. Emilio says of this moment: "I was scared but I didn't understand what was going on. I never imagined--who could have imagined such a thing? I am in God's hands, I thought. I loved God and I trusted in his love . . . I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. I was naked before God and I was raped" (394). And this is the moment where the novel just doesn't work for me.
Emilio asked "who could have imagined such a thing?" And I think, automatically, without trying to be glib or sarcastic or what-have-you, "Anyone reading the book?" I certainly imagined it long, long before it is revealed that this is what happened to him. Surely no one who has been paying attention thinks Father Emilio Sandoz entered into prostitution consensually? I had assumed from the first we learned of his prostitution that there was rape involved. And I don't buy that Emilio can't imagine it either. Much is made of how difficult and dangerous Emilio's early life was, and of how much time he spent as a priest in dangerous neighborhoods ministering to the poor. This is a street-wise priest, a priest who was himself rescued from a life of crime and drugs and the underworld. And he can't imagine rape? Really?
None of the awful things that have happened to Emilio has happened to me, so I can't say with any surety how awful they are in relation to one another. But I also balked at the idea that Emilio could maintain his faith through learning that he is, in all likelihood, stranded on an alien planet, through coming across two loved-ones brutally murdered and partially eaten, through learning that a species he'd come to love was being bred for food by another species he'd come to respect, through losing three more loved-ones bloodily, through a forced march, and through surviving only by eating the flesh of friends while watching another loved-one die of starvation, and then lose his faith because he was raped. Not because the rape was a "last-straw" in a long-line of potentially faith-shattering events--the novel does not suggest this. But because of the rape. Full stop.
I don't get it. And because the novel is so good, I want to get it, and my first inclination is to believe that my not getting it is my fault, not the writer's. Are we meant to understand that Emilio has too much faith in that moment? Is his faith blinding him to what's happening around him? Has he allowed himself to be submissive because of his faith in God when he ought to have exercised his free will and fought? Is the rape meant to act not only as an event but as a metaphor? Does Emilio believe that God has used him, without his permission and to ends with which he does not agree?
I don't mind a book that leaves me with questions. But these questions feel confusing rather than satisfying. I know an intentionally and usefully ambiguous moment when I see it, and I don't see that in Emilio's rape scene. I see potential, maybe, for some further exploration of the nature of God. One of the priests says of Emilio, after Emilio's painful confession of the rape and his loss of faith, that "he's closer to God right now than I have ever been in my life. And I don't even have the courage to envy him" (400). Knowing this God will not, I think, be a walk in the garden (remember the Old Testament). But I wanted that potential explored here, in this book. There's a sequel to The Sparrow, but while I think the novel could support a sequel, it doesn't feel like it needs one. What it needed, what would have made this absolute five-star, best-read-of-the-year material, is a longer resolution where the purpose of the end's ambiguities, if not the ambiguities themselves, became clear.
This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.