Title: The Sparrow
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 2.5 / 5
I think this book would make a great book club read. Its themes and plot are ripe for discussion. Unfortunately this is also where I run into problems with it–the book is more a vehicle for Russell’s musings on faith, theology and first contact than actual literature. I really enjoyed this book until about the halfway mark, and then it kind of progressively dropped off for me. One reviewer noted that “the ‘meaning of life’ questions raised by the author was driving the narrative rather than evolving from it” and I have to agree. I’m all for meaning of life questions, but certain aspects of the way they were raised seem ham-fisted to me.
The writing was serviceable, although I could have done without all the foreshadowing. She also did a lot of telling, as opposed to showing. I wish the characters had had more depth. In the author interview in back, Russell says that she was raised Catholic, turned into a “contented atheist” for 20 years, but then she became a mother and “realized [her] ethics and morality were rooted in religion.” And that’s cool for her, but I have a few issues with “morality = religion” myself. The idea of “God” and faith that she expounds on is not only not my idea of “God” (which, big deal), it’s not a particularly original conception of “God.” I could definitely forgive this if the whole thing didn’t seem so central to the novel’s raison d’être and if she didn’t try to force the profundity.
Spoiler time. Probably my biggest beef with this book is the way it treats rape. I’m not opposed to depictions of rape in media. Last year I gave 5 stars to a book called Rape Girl, which dealt heavily with rape. Out of my six favorite books of 2013, three contained rapes or sexual assaults (and two more contained explicit threat of sexual assault). But they didn’t treat them in the same way that Russell treats it here, which I felt was basically as a plot point. On the “plus” side of things, Russell does show the devastating the effect on Emilio–emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. The victim was the focal point. Yet I got the notion that it only really mattered, that she only included it, to drive home a point about Emilio’s loss of faith–basically she wrote it because it was the worst thing her mind could conceive for him to go through. Anal gang rape by aliens was the most horrific and gratuitous faith-shattering ordeal she could come up with, and for that reason alone, it got included in her story. She saves the “big reveal” until the end to get the biggest bang out of it, too, trying to pique our interest along the way with “what could possibly have happened!” even though it was obvious to me right from the first mention of “whore” and “brothel” in the very beginning. It could have been handled a lot better. However, the narrative was also critical of victim blaming, which I did appreciate.
And another gripe, somewhat unrelated to the book, since it was contained in the interview in back. Here is our author speaking: “It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those [“Age of Exploration”-era] explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today.” I don’t know… is it really unfair to suggest that, hey, maybe genocide is wrong? Or is it the committing of genocide that is truly unfair? “Oh the poor white supremacist imperialist conquistadors committing mass extermination, it’s so unfair to criticize their actions.” ?!?! I also object to basically saying, “People today do shitty things so it’s wrong to point out shitty things that happened in the past.” I understand saying something like, “Many people today condemn the conquest of the New World as barbaric while still harboring unexamined racism of their own.” I would cosign that. But that’s not what she said. She said that it is unfair to criticize racist imperialistic genocide. Not. On. Board.
Anyway, I can see why some people love this book but there were enough frustrating bits to hold me back from really enjoying it myself.