Sparrow is a fairly intense book about surviving abuse and having to live with the fallout afterwards. The titular character, Sparrow, is a talented teenage ballet dancer who has grown up trained to hold in her secrets. Sparrow’s major secret — and the one that colours all the decisions she makes throughout this novel — involves a truth about her mother, who died years ago.
The focus of this novel is Sparrow’s relationship with her boyfriend Tristan, a handsome and popular boy who turns out to be controlling, abusive, and overall a horrible person. Because of Sparrow’s history with her mother, she does her best to keep Tristan’s behaviour under wraps. Even as her friends and family express concern about how scared she seems of Tristan, Sparrow insists that everything’s fine. The novel switches POV from Sparrow and her friend and dance partner Lucas, taking us through the months of Sparrow and Tristan’s relationship, from the very first meet-cute to Tristan’s increasingly violent outbursts, and finally to a confrontation that proves almost fatal.
Coming into this novel, I knew that it would tackle the subject of abuse. Not sure how I got the impression, but for some reason, I thought it would involve a single incident of rape near the beginning, followed by a long yet ultimately hopeful process of healing. It’s an intense topic, and one I wasn’t sure I could handle yet I was curious enough about the book overall to give it a try.
Yet it turns out my presumption was wrong. Rather than showing us the fallout from a single incidence of abuse, the author takes us through the long-term reality of dealing with abuse on a daily basis. I don’t think there was any actual sex in the book; rather, a lot of Tristan’s abuse was emotional and physical. He was often jealous of Sparrow’s friendship with Lucas, and there were scenes when Lucas would discover Sparrow on the ground after an argument with Tristan. All that to say: this was a different type of difficult read than what I was expecting, and I wish I’d had a clearer idea of what to prepare myself for when I started.
Much of the power of Jackson’s storytelling is that she intentionally withholds specifics from us. In a way, that should make the story easier to bear, but instead, it’s an almost smothering reminder of the weight that silence can have. We learn the specifics of what Sparrow’s mother did near the end, and in a way, the knowledge brings with it a form of relief, of catharsis. It’s not easy to read, but it’s far preferable to the obscure allusions Sparrow makes — and immediately pulls away from — throughout the book.
Even with Sparrow’s relationship with Tristan, so much of the worst parts are deliberately kept between the lines. The story is told in fragments, jumping back and forth in time to reveal little vignettes as we go. We see Sparrow terrified about not answering Tristan’s texts immediately — and Jackson’s writing makes us feel her terror on a visceral level without actually labelling it such — but we don’t see all the conversations and arguments that led her to becoming that jumpy. We see glimpses of Tristan accusing her of being attracted to Lucas, of Tristan being pouty because she forgot to wear a piece of jewelry, of Tristan giving one of Sparrow’s friends the finger for no good reason… and somehow, because these glimpses are so brief and disjointed, they’re even more disturbing. We know there’s a lot more than what we’re seeing, and like Sparrow’s family and friends, we feel frustrated at our inability to stop the inevitable crisis.
It’s an intense, sad story. The ending is far from happy, but it does have a tinge of hope and catharsis. (CW: child abuse, domestic violence)
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.