Our book club read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell this past month. We had quite a range of responses to the book. Some folks liked it; others struggled with it, but that’s true for most of the books we read.
There is a great hook at the beginning of the book that draws the reader in, but at the same time, as one of our group observed, “It’s like reading about the Titanic; you know what’s going to happen and you’re reading to understand how the tragedy came about.” There definitely is that element to it, and the reader is left wondering about the tragedy until nearly the very end of the book (about 90% or more into it).
What I liked about the book was the serious exploration of theodicy or a theology of evil and suffering. This is the area of theology that explores how a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God exists alongside evil. If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, how does that work in a world in which we come face to face with evil and suffering? The author doesn’t settle for easy answers either. I think that’s what I liked best about the book. However, some in our group felt the author stacked the deck against the main character (essentially every awful thing that could happen to him did happen to him) and so the deck is in that sense stacked against God. Yet we all knew of people whose lives reflected that kind of suffering, almost a Job-like encounter that leaves a person of faith quite uncomfortable. So, yes, the deck was stacked, but the fact that we knew of stories was interesting and the question of theodicy is not only limited to the degree or extent of suffering, so I was inclined to give the author slack in that regard.
The reader comes to care about many of the characters, and the story arc was interesting and well-paced, with difficult questions arising about how good intentions can have disastrous consequences. I really didn’t mind that so many questions were left unanswered until nearly the very end.
I ended up reading the sequel, too, which is called The Children of God. It picks up with where The Sparrow left off and explores the consequences for the main character and for the world and species featured in the first book. I liked the sequel but am still processing some of the ways the author dealt with matters of faith. But, again, the author never takes the easy way out, and as someone who sits with people who are working through pain and suffering, I found that emotionally compelling.