Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Once in awhile a book comes along that sends me into a tailspin and I find myself putting off writing about it – mainly because I worry that anything I write couldn’t possibly do it justice. The easy thing to do would be to say – read this book, come back when you’re finished and then let’s talk. It’s that kind of book. It wants to be discussed.


I do not usually read science fiction. It just isn’t my thing. But when Ann from Table Talk, whose impeccable judgment I trust completely, recommended Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow, I went and got myself a copy right away. I believe Ann said the book was a revelation for her at the time she read it and that was certainly enough to get me interested. I love the idea that a single book can change the way we understand or think about the world. Literature is just that powerful.


The Sparrow is about Jesuit priests and space travel. A young scientist discovers radio waves from another planet which turn out to be music. He reveals his discovery to his closest friends, one of whom happens to be a Jesuit priest and linguistics expert named Emilio, and suddenly the Jesuits are funding a research expedition to get to the planet and see if they can make contact.


The novel is written in such a way, however, that you know from the very beginning the expedition was a failure. Eight people (four priests, four civilians) were sent, and only one has returned – Emilio. He is close to death when he arrives back on earth. All of the other travelers were killed somehow and Emilio was found by the rescue team working in a brothel. He also seems to have killed a child from the alien planet.


The Sparrow takes on a staggering number of philosophical questions – about religious faith and humanity, about definitions of sentient life and forms of social structure. It explores biological determinism, racism and political theory. And yet it is also a clearly-written story about friendship, love and adventure which takes place in a richly-imagined alien world.  


Highlights for me included the novel’s discussion about clerical celibacy, questions about assumptions/prejudices we might make with regard to other sentient beings, and the book’s investigation of a different and difficult-to-understand socio-political system. Also, The Sparrow looks at the idea of influence. What happens when a theoretically more-developed culture comes in contact with a theoretically less-developed culture? And who gets to decide what “developed” means?


It is hard to pinpoint a central question in The Sparrow but one which became very important for me by the end of the novel was a theological one – if we accept that God is good, how do we accept that He allows horrible things to happen? This paradox, I think, is fundamental to any exploration of faith. If we believe that a higher power has worked to put together or is fundamental to some kind of architecture – biological or moral – then we can’t help but be interested in understanding how that higher power is involved when the architecture breaks down.


Perhaps there are tons of science fiction novels with a similar preoccupation and since I don’t read them I’ve missed out until now, but I can’t help feeling this novel was unique. Russell’s prose is straightforward and her ideas complicated – an effective combination for a novel with so much going on.




11 Responses to “Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow”

  1. Litlove

    If you read an outline for this in a publishing house you might be forgiven for thinking – Jesuit priests and music from another planet? You what? So this has to be a tick on the credit side of publishing’s balance sheet. I hardly ever read science fiction, but this sounds like a grown-up version of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle which was really good. So, I’m tempted.

  2. verbivore

    Litlove – I know exactly what you mean, I almost didn’t put a plot synoposis in the post because it’s just so…bizarre. And it is like L’Engle for grown-ups – such a good comparison.

    Chartroose – yeah!! I can’t wait to see what you think.

    Jeane – It was definitely not like anything I had read before, which might just be because I never read Sci-Fi or maybe it really is unique.

  3. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)

    I’m so glad that you felt as strongly about this book as I did. For me it came at a point when I had been very ill and thought that I would never be able to think clearly about anything again. then I hit the point where Emilio and is discussing the way in which the language works and everything fell into place, all my years of language study clicked in and I knew I was on the road out.
    I also thought that the main thrust was theological although I felt Russell was more concerned with how we know God exists when He is not visible. This links in with the different ways in which nouns are declined in the language they are learning.
    If you’re interested in the idea of influence, then you need to read the sequel ‘Children of God’, which explores this in much more detail.

  4. Tai

    Jesuit priests and space travel–I’m hooked. After years of being too snobby to read genre fiction, I am beginning to think they are the only ones with any original ideas.

  5. verbivore

    Ann – you have put that so well, in terms of visible and invisible and yes I see the connection now with Emilio and Sophia’s discussion of declensions, how clever of Russell. I’m interested in the sequel now, didn’t realize there was one!

    Tai – thank you for stopping by. I still have trouble with a lot of genre fiction but this book reminded me that genre fiction doesn’t have to be “genre fiction”, it runs the spectrum from good to bad as easily as “literary fiction”.

  6. Stefanie

    I’ve heard so many good things about this book. I really must get around to reading it.

  7. verbivore

    Stefanie – It was fascinating and I’d, of course, love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to read it. I’m going to try and convince my book group to read it this fall, mainly because I’m dying for a good, hours-long discussion of the book.

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