In Mary Cecilia Jackson’s debut YA novel, an abuse survivor must learn to find hope even in the darkest corners of her broken world.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or its title. But these are the very things that convinced me I needed to read Mary Cecilia Jackson’s Sparrow before it became available to the masses.
And because I have Laurie Halse Anderson and her stories to thank (blame?) for my decision to become a writer in the first place, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dive into a story that shares some of the same themes and dark tones as the book she’s best known for.
This book rightfully compares itself to Speak in many ways, though even if you’re familiar with that story, you’ll still find yourself surprised at every twist and turn in this one. Every page that seems predictable proves itself to be otherwise. Every scene you don’t think will go “that way” does — and it’s a better story because of it.
Sparrow is one of those books that starts out dark and only gets darker — admittedly, my absolute favorite kind. Maybe you can find humor in your crush almost accidentally running you over with his car in the school parking lot, and maybe that’s the point of the opening scene.
Awful things don’t always look that way when you first lay eyes on them. Only when you’re in too deep do you finally realize you don’t belong there … and seemingly have no way of getting out.
From the start, Sparrow takes every trope you’d expect from a book about a ballerina and turns it upside down. It’s not the Swan Lake dance partner our main character Sparrow falls for; it’s the school’s “It Guy” who her dance partner and best friend can’t stand. And it’s not the brutal pressures and demands of ballet that tear her apart, but instead the very boy that claimed to love her.
The further you get into this story, the more your sorrow for its characters unfolds. Told from the alternating perspectives of Sparrow and her best friend, the narrative shows you two very different sides of the grieving process. In the wake of tragedy, Sparrow stops speaking. And her best friend can’t seem to stop saying (and doing) all the wrong things.
There’s one point in the story where, just when you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse for one character, things absolutely get immediately worse. It’s been a long time since I’ve almost physically thrown a book across the room out of pure — yet somehow delightful? — anger. Any book that affects you that deeply mid-read is, by all definitions, a good book.
Fear not, though: Despite the overarching sadness, Sparrow does have a mostly satisfying ending. There’s no better way to end a story about loss than to remind your audience that it’s possible to move on from it, to build a life beyond it — to dance again despite the broken pieces of your past.
If this first book is any indication, Jackson has a bright future in giving us more dark fiction to weep through.
Done well — as this story is — it’s books like these that remind us tragedy is meant to be moved beyond, and those of us who survive it must do so with the strength that comes from allowing ourselves to remember where we’ve been.
Mary Cecilia Jackson’s Sparrow is available on March 17 wherever books are sold.