Back in April, I read A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. Some of you may have noticed another book by her, The Sparrow, listed in my "Of Significance..." tab >points up to it<, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Actually, we'll get to it now. Sort of. See, I loved The Sparrow. I also loved Children of God, which is the sequel to The Sparrow. [As soon as I figure out where Sparrow is packed up, I'm going to read it again (and, as many of you may have picked up, I'm not much of a re-reader.] But A Thread of Grace threw me for a loop as soon as I picked it up. Sparrow and Children are sci-fi, but Thread is set during World War II, which I knew. I was prepared for that, so that's not what got me. The thing that got me is that Thread is written in present tense. I'm pretty sure I've never read a novel written in present tense before, so I was unprepared for it, and it was weird. Really weird.
So weird, in fact, that at about 20 pages in, I told my wife that I didn't think I was going to like the book. She was surprised. Given how much I love Sparrow, she was really surprised. I think, in my head, I gave it to about page 50 to draw me in, or I was going to put it down. Fortunately, it did. Once I got into the rhythm of it, it was great.
Of course, nearly everything is written in past tense. It's really how we think. You tell a story, either made up or true, and you think about it in ways of having already happened. So Russel has two sci-fi books that take place in the near future that are told in past tense and one historical fiction novel about events from seven decades ago told in present tense (she has other novels, but I haven't read them, yet). I think the present tense format works, though, in that it takes these events that happened in the past and makes them feel... imminent. It gives the feeling that the narrator, also, doesn't know what's going to happen next, and, for the type of book this is, about Jews in Nazi occupied Italy, it adds a level of tension. It's war. People die in war, and you just don't know who might die unexpectedly. Telling it in past tense would have given the subtle message that the narrator already knows who survives and who doesn't, but, in present tense, no one knows.
What the book's really about, though, is not what it's about. Not many authors can pull this off, but Russell is one of them. Most authors are able to touch on other themes but fail to actually elevate the story to being about something beyond the obvious. Her themes are deep and vital to what it means to be human. Things we all struggle with.
With The Sparrow, she chose faith. The book looks like many other sci-fi novels about first contact with aliens, but it's so much more than that. It's the story of a priest and how meeting aliens destroys his faith in God. Not in any way you might think, though. Father Sandoz' journey, in many ways, reflects the current crisis of faith in our own nation and in much of the world. It's the question of how faith is tested in the midst of terrible things. In Children of God (the sequel to Sparrow), she deals with the struggle of whether faith can be restored after it has been ripped from us. Both books are powerful, beautiful, and hideous. And, as I've said, Sparrow is dangerously close to becoming the third book on my "Everyone Should Read This" list.
Thread is a little more subtle in what it's about. Not that it's really more subtle, but the question of forgiveness is, in many way, much more complicated. In a culture that knows no sin, and we don't, because everything is relative, how do you deal with the question of forgiveness? Although there are many characters in Thread, the story really revolves around the sins of two men, one Nazi and one Jew, and how they deal with guilt and their individual searches to be forgiven. The most powerful aspect of the book is that you can't really see what's going on until the very end, and I can't say more about it without giving it away, but it's a powerful moment.
Just... well... don't get attached to any of the characters. It is war, after all.
Russell, I think, is under appreciated in today's writing culture. She should be a super star, but, yet, most people have never heard of her. I'm sure it's because her books are deep and complex. We tend to elevate the simplistic, in-your-face kind of stories, right now, and I think that's too bad. I do have hope, though. It took Tolkien a few decades before his works were really appreciated, so, hopefully, Russell's book will continue to creep out there until they take their place among classic literature, as they should.
Because I want to be very clear about this, if you haven't read The Sparrow, go do it. Especially, if you like sci-fi. But even if you don't. I'd find hard to imagine that you would be disappointed.