Picador have high hopes for this novel which has been appearing on 2023 anticipated read lists from before the New Year. I knew nothing about book nor author before reading it. I wasn’t surprised on completing it to find out this is the work of a very established American writer and his sixth novel, his first being published some 33 years ago (“The Wild Colonial Boy” which has a Northern Ireland terrorism theme). Nor was I surprised that he has been making a living teaching creative writing courses at American universities and getting qualifications from the highly influential Iowa Writers Workshop as this is a technical masterclass of a novel which shows a gifted writer demonstrating much experience and talent. I also discovered, on completion, that a few years ago I’d purchased from The Great Courses a DVD course on “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” and the tutor is James Hynes. To be honest, I’ve never actually got round to starting that but am far more motivated to do so now I have read what could be the book to bring this writer considerable international success.
“Sparrow” is the story of a slave in Ancient Rome who as a small child finds himself living amongst a group of prostitutes (“wolves”), who live and work in a tavern. It took me a little while to get into the story but that’s because the author is busy employing his tips and techniques to draw you in. Very little background is needed as we are reading a first-person narrative from the boy written as an old man looking back. He doesn’t know his own background but works from one of his first memories which is a violent altercation between an unknown man and the woman who resentfully feeds him. He is “Pusus”, which just means “boy” and the woman, another slave, referred to as “Focaria” – cook. He has no other identity and a virtually non-existent outlook on his world. Through Focaria and one of the prostitutes, known as “Euterpe” his ignorance is slowly diminished and over time his very small part of the world begins to extend a few hundred yards from the tavern.
One of the ways in which this is achieved is by the author’s multi-sensory approach and description of sights, smells, sounds, taste and the feel of the environment which allows the boy to make sense of his world and has the added bonus for us as readers in creating a very strong fictional depiction. We all know how valuable a technique this can be and here it is employed superbly. Books set in Ancient Times can be a little off-putting for some as it feels so alien and often too much information is needed to be taken on board but here as we are working through the child’s narrative we only know what we need to and his questioning of his experiences allows us to access his world. I’m not saying that this is not superbly researched but it is so seamlessly integrated and never over-complicated which also brings the reader right into the text.
Of course, all these technical skills would be pointless if the story did not involve. Time is taken with plot, strong characters are established and we see things like the boy coping with the social dynamics of getting water from the public fountain at some length before realising that a rich, gripping plot has developed which builds beautifully.
I was very impressed by this work, there are characters I will remember for a long time. The characterisation of the narrator feels as potent as “Shuggie Bain” or “Young Mungo”, two of the most vital literary depictions of male youth in recent years. It never shirks from the horrors facing these people (it’s never totally clear how old the boy is, at one point he says he thinks he is ten, which completely floored me, given the ways he has to survive). You can take these characters out of their Ancient Times setting and place them anytime in history and, shockingly, their ordeals and issues would still be relevant, a sobering realisation.
Despite the darkness of the subject matter the book does have an uplift and there is an overriding sense of hope. The boy uses a sparrow as a metaphor for escape and can visualise out-of-body experiences when things get too grim, another technique that lifts any sense of gloom and like this metaphorical sparrow this book really flies.
“Sparrow” is published by Picador on May 4th 2023. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.