Thursday, July 8, 2010

Loving the fallen sparrow

We're back from the dead and ready to roll.  Thank you for your concern about my dead computer and lack of internet access for, er, too long.  My lack of access to the net (and several delayed and canceled flights) meant I read a great book lately, and I wanted to tell you about it while I am still gobsmacked.


I loved the characters.  I loved the plot.  I loved this book.  It made me cry so much that my nose peeled from tissue over-use, and I had to do all kinds of wonky things to prevent my awkwardly peeling nose from being what people at my new job remembered about me henceforth. 

This is a difficult and beautiful story.  The characters are lovable and believable and painfully awkward and broken in so many different, normal ways, and that's why this book may break your heart.  It's challenging and moving and heartbreaking and harrowing and full of fragile happiness and despair and death and sadness and tragedy and seeking and surviving and not-finding and truth and grace and faith and hope and love in so many forms.  I can't give you details because it must be read to be understood. 


No plot summary could possibly do it justice.  Such summaries only serve to cheapen it (as I have proven by trying and getting less-than enthusiastic reactions.  This is a tight book, a finely crafted piece of speculative fiction no "literary fiction" reader should feel ashamed of reading.  World and plot and characters are melded to each other.

The parallel narrative structure is pulled off wonderfully.  I've read other books that try to be this good at a parallel story, and I ended up feeling jerked back and forth, always in the middle of things, as if constantly being in media res is a good thing.  No thank you; I don't appreciate the whiplash.  There is no whiplash here, just elegant execution.

Great balance of new information, great use of point of view to control what is withheld and what we learn and what the characters learn without making the readers feel like the writer is toying with or torturing them.  It's all remarkably organic.  We are on a journey with the main character in the present, and we are reliving the past with him.  We are restricted, but it doesn't feel manipulative because it rises from the story itself and the way it is being told.

It deals extensively with ideas and themes I wish more people would think about (good and evil, maturity, change, celibacy, society, community, mistakes, hindsight, judgment [without facts or love], respect, kindness, tenderness, love and friendship, dignity, fate, good intentions, God, sin, nature, and some other things).  This is a smart book with smart characters, and you will think whether you plan to or not.  Also, regard the calm foreshadowing with awe and dread.

The paperback version I read had some extras at the end, including author insights, and I was blown away by Russell's comments about how we look back at the past and judge harshly, as if we are better people now who would not do these things, as if we are not still the same human beings who make the same mistakes ad nauseum, as if we have the right to judge based on our imperfect information and the twisting of facts and historical records.  If you have any smugness in you, it might be beaten out of you by the end.  Read the book before you read the extra bits because it's kind of like being punched (in a thought-provoking way) if you read it in the context of the whole story.


One of the most amazing things about the book is that when you come to the end of the story, having been pummelled and rung out and smashed, somehow there is hope.  This is a miracle.  Don't miss it.

If you've read The Sparrow, feel free to gush or just talk about it or recommend other books people might like.  It's vaguely similar to but clearly better than Out of the Silent Planet and is somewhat redolent of Madeleine L'Engle to me (criticisms I've seen of this work and some of her thinkier works are very similar, and I couldn't help but connect this with The Arm of the Starfish for the sparrow quotes alone).

I'm sorry I waited so long to read this for the first time.  Feel free not to repeat my mistake.

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