Published September 1997 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: bought this one for only $2 - a steal!
In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being "human."
I wanted to sit right down as soon as I finished this book, while things were still fresh in my mind, and write my review. But I couldn't. I just could not begin to wrap my head around what I had just read and put my thoughts into words. A week later, I'm still not sure I can.
It's a complicated plot that shifts back and forth in time, from the initial days when the singing is first discovered, to forty years later when the sole, broken survivor of the expedition is being interrogated to find out the truth of what happened, to the time of the expedition, and back into the future again. It's tricky to get started but, done well, that kind of storytelling can really draw readers in. And Russell does it well.
What else does Russell do well in The Sparrow?
- She makes your brain work. She challenges readers to examine their beliefs about religion, faith, science, our assumptions about the universe, and the things we do with the best of intentions. A good book will make you think. A great book will make you think long after you've finished the book. In that sense, The Sparrow is a great book.
- She makes you care, deeply, about her characters - the broken ones, the strong ones, the funny ones, the ones who take themselves too seriously. And then she breaks your heart by killing them (that's not a spoiler - you know right at the beginning of the book that many of these people will die). Seriously. Breaks. Your. Heart.
- She wrings all of the emotions out of her readers. All of them. I laughed with these people, I cried with these people, I was amazed with these people. I wanted to shake them at times and fold them into my arms at others. I was exhausted when I closed this book.
Big thanks to Andi of Estella's Revenge (her review) for convincing me that this is a book I need to read and to Trish of Love, Laughter and A Touch of Insanity for putting together a readalong that sparked me to pick it up and gave me the opportunity to talk about the book with others who were reading it at the same time.
The Sparrow is easily one of my favorite books of this year...maybe any year. I can't wait to read the sequel, Children of God,
"Once, long ago, she'd allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God's presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she'd decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine."