Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mary Doria Russell and A Thread of Grace

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.


  1. I'll have to check "The Sparrow" out at some point. I need to do more reading but usually I get distracted playing around with The Sims 2 and watching the Stanley Cup playoffs.

  2. It does sound like my kind of read.

    I also just read a present tense novel and I loved the voice. So much that I actually went through the first ten pages of my WIP and changed it all to present tense --before I realized maybe it wasn't such a good idea to do the whole novel that way. Yeah, had to go through and change it all back to past.

  3. I love it when someone is absolutely passionate about a book they have just read. I don't like science fiction, generally speaking, but I love a great story about the human condition and I loved your passion for The Sparrow so much that I am willing to give it a go. I'm leaving here for Amazon to see if I can find it for my Kindle. Thanks Andrew.

  4. While I was there, I picked up a book called The House on the Corner. Some guy named Andrew Leon wrote it - ever heard of him?

  5. I just read The Hunger Games yesterday and thought the present tense used was a horrible distraction. I never got past it. It was still a good story I suppose - I just can't figure out why she wrote it that way. I'm not a fan.

    The Sparrow is sitting on my nightstand just waiting for me to dig into it. That doesn't mean I'll read it next, but very soon

  6. I will be checking out "The Sparrow" based on your recommendation. You know...The Hunger Games is written in present tense. For that matter, so is most of the YA genre if you bother to check some of that out. It's all the rage right now because of the uber monies involved.

  7. The Sparrow is one of the best books I've ever read. It's the book I recommend to friends who don't read sci-fi but I think would like it. It's such a beautiful blend of science fiction and theology.

    I haven't read this one yet, but it's on my to-read list. I actually bought it a while ago and just haven't gotten to it.

  8. When I read my first book written in present tense, I was also like WTH???!! but once I got into it, I hardly noticed. :-)

    Russel's books sound wonderful.

  9. When I read my first book written in present tense, I was also like WTH???!! but once I got into it, I hardly noticed. :-)

    Russel's books sound wonderful.

  10. Grumpy: It's worth checking out!

    L.G.: LOL! Well, I can say pretty certainly that I won't be writing anything significant in present tense any time soon. But that's a tale for another time.

    Cathy: I'm sure you'll love The Sparrow (I hope!); it's a great book.

    That other guy, though? I hear he's a hack. :P

    But, seriously, thanks for picking it up! Make sure you let me know what you think about both books.

    Rusty: Ah, I didn't realize Hunger Games was present. Yet another reason to not read it. Read The Sparrow! Next!

    Michael: I tend to not read much YA, which is, actually, kind of funny. I didn't know that not only was there a shift to 1st person but to present tense. I hate to say it, but it all smacks of lazy writing to me.

    S.L.: See, that's what's so great about it, technically, it's sci-fi, but, really, it's just not. And she's so faithful to the science while writing her book that's not really sci-fi.

    Misha: Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction. I do think having it in present tense served a purpose, though. Which is good.

  11. You've made her sound incredibly compelling. On it.

  12. I can't recall ever having read a novel written in the present tense. It does sound like it could be rather off putting, but I know what you're saying about getting into the rhythm. I'm like that with Cormac McCarthy: I struggle at first and then the novel turns into one of the best I've ever read. Since I tend to prefer sci-fi that takes place in the past or present this book might appeal to me.

    Wrote By Rote

  13. Reading in the present tense IS distracting. Somehow my brain doesn't work that way. I'm lucky my brain works at all. :)

    Love reading and watching SciFi.

    First time here. Enjoyed it.


  14. Admittedly, I'm not a HUGE fan of sci-fi, but this sounds like the kind of book that I would read for its story and its message, not for its genre. I'll be sure and put this on my long "to-read" list (it's a word doc, and it's 3 pages).

  15. That's the best review of one book that's secretly about another book that I've ever read.

    I'm not sure I'd read "Thread," but I will as "Sparrow" to my reading list.

  16. Jericha: I think you'll like it.

    Arlee: I haven't read any Cormac. I'll have to look into that at some point.

    Journaling Woman: Thanks for stopping by!
    I know what you mean about being lucky if your brain works. Well, not yours, mine!

    ABftS: Skip the "to read" list and just read it. I know how those go. I had one that was taller than me for years.

    Briane: Caught that, did you? heh heh