Some books tell an engaging story. Some books explore complex moral and spiritual issues. The great books do both. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is a great book. The plot is straightforward and compelling: in the 21st century a group comprised of Jesuit priests, a linguist, an astronomer, a retired engineer, and an anthropologist/doctor travel to a planet in another solar system to make first contact with the sentient species there whose radio broadcasts they have detected from Earth. We gradually learn what happened on the planet through two parallel story-lines: one that follows the characters who travel to the planet as they prepare for and take this journey, and one that takes place after the journey is over and the leaders of the Jesuits are trying to understand what happened by questioning the single person, Emilio Sandoz, who returned from the planet alive (you know this from the beginning, so I am not giving anything away).
Russell uses this story to address the question of religious faith, as well as various moral and philosophical issues and the complexities of love and family. Through characters who feel real and engaging dialogue, as well as the actual plot elements, she sheds light on these themes without simplifying the questions or providing easy answers. In a question-and-answer with the author at the end of the edition I read, Russell responds to the question “What do you want readers to get out of this book?” with:
That you can’t know the answer to questions of faith but that the questions are worth asking and worth thinking about deeply.
She accomplished this goal with a beautiful, complex story. The most impressive thing to me about The Sparrow, what makes it really great, is the way in which these complex issues are woven so gracefully into the plot and dialogue. The characters have deep discussions and face moral issues alone but it never seems contrived. It is as if you are sitting in a room with a bunch of interesting people and the conversation just naturally flows to and away from such issues, with plenty of humor and discomfort and honesty and avoidance mixed in.
In case it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend The Sparrow. Russell has written several other books, including a sequel, and I look forward to reading them.