Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Book Review: Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell’s sequel to her astonishing debut, The Sparrow, finds Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz still struggling with the trauma of the events that left him the only survivor of the mission to the planet Rakhat. He is beginning to be able to accept love and friendship and meaning in life to replace the hole left by his loss of faith, when the church tries to convince him to return - as the foremost expert on Rakhati languages and the only human being with any experience of the complex social structures of the two sentient species. Sandoz’ resignation from the society of Jesus and the priesthood leaves the leadership with a dilemma; if Emilio’s return to Rakhat is vital to God’s plan, does this end justify the means?

This is another terrific book, with superbly drawn main characters and startlingly beautiful prose, that explores some deep philosophical questions - although mostly the personal, universal ones of belief, doubt and purpose. What drives us and how we come to terms with tragedy and failure and loss and injury. It is about forgiveness, of others and of ourselves.

There is one Big Issue touched upon; should contact with a pristine culture respect their social structures and allow harm to some of its members to continue, or try not to intervene at the risk (perhaps certainty) of destroying it? Leaving aside the fact that change from contact may be inevitable, this book makes no easy answers; Rakhati society is turned upside down - quite literally, with the ‘oppressed’ becoming the new rulers and the previously dominant species possibly facing total extinction and, in any case, a decades-long war with millions of casualties.

The book is not without fault. The space travel took me out of suspension of disbelief somewhat; while the idea of relativity is well used, there is only the merest attempt to make the travel realistic (gravity approximated by the acceleration of the ship), while the ‘crew’ (who seem more like passengers) cook meals on a stove and drink wine from glasses.

There also seems to be an odd gap, perhaps an omission due to editing. The storyline featuring Sofia Mendez, thought killed with the the rest of the mission in the first book is riveting as she teaches Runa a different way of life than subservience and her son Isaac - a severely autistic savant - explores the music of Rakhat and of Earth. They disappear from the story for several decades (if not many pages, due to the way the book is structured) and this feels like a loss. More could be made of Sofia’s transformation into the stateswoman she becomes and, in Isaac’s final brief appearance, he seems reduced from the fascinatingly focussed person we knew to some sort of holy fool happy to impart his message.

More importantly, some of the conclusions are, perhaps, a little pat. While in The Sparrow the question of whether the events were simply a combination of chance and human agency or part of God’s plan is left satisfyingly unclear and open to interpretation, here there is a rather blatant authorial shove in the direction of the divine.

Despite these flaws, The Sparrow and Children of God (which are very much as a single work) are wonderful reads and explorations of belief and morality. I am someone to whom the concept of a higher power is quite alien, but the struggles and motivations of those characters with such a thing at their core was made real to me.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015


I don’t quite believe how long it has taken me to make this connection, but I guess that is part of the pathology.

I’ve hit a dip. From feeling quite well I’ve suddenly plummeted, for no good reason I can place. Dropped so deep I’ve been ideating suicide, at least as an image, as a thing to hold and observe dispassionately. As a concept worthy of consideration.

But then I’ve also done something else that hasn’t happened in quite some time. While walking I’ve just found myself coming to a stop, slowing and ceasing like clockwork winding down, and standing there until I realise I need to make the effort to start moving. This has, as I suggest, happened before - but the realisation is that this is precisely the effect of severe depression; the weight of it makes me grind to a halt while the world around me continues to move, and the stress caused by this disconnect builds until it becomes something I cannot bear.

If you haven’t experienced it I must emphasise that this is no metaphor; in neither the physical nor mental case am I deliberately stopping, the energy to continue just seems to evaporate until some part of me kicks in to keep me moving. But what will happen when that energy isn’t there?

Friday, 11 September 2015


I’ve been signed off sick for just over a month. Every time I get that two-weeks certificate it makes me feel more like a fraud and a failure. But I’d thought I was getting there. I’d contacted my manager when I sent in my last note earlier this week to say i wanted to arrange my provisional return to work when it ran out, but then this week I’ve just collapsed. i don’t know why, but I feel like I’ve been sideswiped into a deep, dark ditch. I feel like I’m back to where I was three or four years ago in the bleak depths of my depression, and I have no idea why.

I can hardly look at myself in a mirror, barely able to meet the gaze of the hateful monster that stares back at me. Being around people is worse, because they are all mirrors - and people who know me and care about me the worst, because the reflection is distorted by their expectations, however benevolent, however kind. (I know; it is my perception of their expectations that is the problem, making it triply distorted).

I’d come so far. After crashing and burning I’d slowly rebuilt my life and it feels as though everything is crumbling to dust again.