The human race has long wanted to know if we are truly alone in the world. What would happen if we were to discover we were not, and heard strangely mesmerising voices floating across the universe to be received on our terrestrial radio telescopes. Surely we'd want to reply in some way, to go visit this other planet of 'God's creation.' This is how this story begins. The story follows a disparate group of friends who are drawn together around the enigmatic Jesuit priest Emilio. They are sent on a secret mission to contact 'the singers' who are somewhere in Alpha Centauri. Emilio is the sole survivor of that pioneering mission to Rakhat, a mission funded by the Society of Jesus. Emilio returns as damaged goods - physically, mentally and spiritually. The story is told in the form of flashbacks, how the mission came about, the recounting of the mission itself, interspersed with Emilio's painful recovery and subsequent confessions before the Society. Something truly horrendous happened that caused the moral and spiritual collapse of this devout man, but what was it?
'The Sparrow' explores interesting issues concerning the basis and justification for faith, friendship, cultural prejudices and social misunderstandings. How indeed would you approach contacting a strange race and culture? You wouldn't know if you'd made a huge cultural mistake, until it was too late. On Rakhat, the mistake is slight and a deceptively neutral one, but because of it the initial success of the mission suddenly, and tragically unravels. For most of the book you are intrigued by the slow unpicking and teasing out of information buried in the stories structure. Then, about three quarters of the way the pace begins to flag and doesn't pick up again until the final revelatory chapters. These last chapters feel rather rushed, as if Russell sensed the book could grind to a halt if she didn't draw it to a close quickly. It ends weakly,we know something horrible has happened, its been widely trailed through out the book, so when you are finally told clearly what it was, it fails to live up to your anticipation. Emilio's full recovery once the retelling of his story to his superiors is completed, was nothing if not miraculous. The overall abruptness of the novel's conclusion, takes the edge off what would otherwise have been a wholehearted endorsement from me. Otherwise, it is a very engrossing novel, one that is humane and packed with fascinating insights.