Poignant, painful, but ultimately hopeful

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Poignant, painful, but ultimately hopeful, Sparrow provides a harrowing look at one girl’s journey from victim to survivor. This is the sort of book that will stick with you for a while–and, yes, you’ll probably shed some tears.

Now, normally I save trigger/content warnings for the end of a review, but I want to make this abundantly clear: this is a heavy read. It deals, in detail, with the subjects of abuse, both physical and verbal, both from parent to child and within a romantic relationship. This is not just a minor thing; there is violence severe enough to cause a hospital visit. A character struggles with deep psychological scars from past abuse. There is a side plot including cancer and death of a family member.

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it is emotional. I’m not a sad-cry person. But reading this book was one of those rare instances where I felt such an intense sadness, I was sure that, if I were a crying person, my emotions would have been pouring out of my eyes and down my face. Jackson does not pull any punches in her writing, and we see it all–the good, the bad, and the downright awful.

The story is told through the dual perspectives of Sparrow and Lucas, a technique that I found highly effective in carrying the storyline. We see Sparrow grappling with internal demons while trying to suppress and gloss over the seriousness of what is happening to her, followed by Lucas’s horror-struck, detailed observations of those same scenes, and guilt over his inability to help the girl he loves, who has been his closest friend since childhood. There is a resonance between their two narratives: Sparrow, who feels powerless but needs to learn that she is not; and Lucas, who wants to help but needs to learn that not everything is his fault or his job to fix. Jackson is able to keenly hone in on the details of both characters’ psychological states and convey those in an eloquent (but not pretentious) way. It’s the little details that really hold their characters up: the way Sparrow obsessively does things in groups of three when she is nervous, the relationship between Lucas and his little sister, the use of dance as both a coping mechanism and a distraction, and the recurrent overspilling and misplacement of anger from both of them as they work through the wake of a disaster.

While we are talking about writing style: Jackson’s writing is lovely, full of vivid imagery and smoothly flowing sentences. There are splashes of humor every now and then, mostly in the banter between Lucas and some of his other friends, and from Delaney, who is the third member of Sparrow and Lucas’s friend trio, which helps add some much-needed levity in the earlier chapters.

Jackson also took an interesting approach to telling this story. Many times, a story on abuse will follow the trajectory of the relationship until it reaches a critical point, or it will at least keep the abuser as a major character for much of the story. That is not the case with Sparrow; the worst point of the relationship happens well before the halfway mark, and the rest of the book focuses on Sparrow and those who love her (especially Lucas), on the process of healing, and on the hope for a better future. Rather than dwelling on the bad actions, it places emphasis on the fallout from those actions. Outside of confrontation with Lucas at school, Tristan is not physically present for the majority of the story. This is significant: it makes it clear, even from the early days after the incident, that this is Sparrow’s story, not her abuser’s. And, critically, by including Lucas’s perspective, it is able to show more clearly the wide-reaching effects of the abuse, not just to the one being abused but to everyone around them as well.

The one aspect of this book I couldn’t quite decide whether I liked or not was the pacing. The narrative was fragmented oddly in some places, jumping from one scene to the next, sometimes skipping months at a time. On its own, this pattern is well-suited to a book that is taking such a concentrated, razor-edged approach to a difficult topic, by only including key scenes and omitting the fluff in between. But because the narrative spans such a long time, there are events that clearly have buildup to them but feel abrupt anyway, because we didn’t see any of it. The other problem was the combination of this format with the dual perspective, because it meant that things didn’t always happen chronologically–we see a few months from Sparrow, then jump back and see the same few months from Lucas, filling in some of the gaps in Sparrow’s narration. As a whole, I still think it works, but it can also be disorienting for the reader, especially on the first perspective switch.

As a whole, Sparrow is a devastating-yet-beautiful book, fully deserving of a read. Do not expect it to be easy; emotionally, it will hurt. But it is so, so valuable, so important, so significant in the bluntness with which it addresses these issues. And its ever-present message of hope will continue to ring long after you close the last page.