The Fall of a Sparrow

July 31, 1998
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by Robert Hellenga

July 1998

Readers familiar with Robert Hellenga’s first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, will hear its echoes in his second, ruminative book, The Fall of a Sparrow. Hellenga again explores the subtle details of the creation and preservation of beauty, this time through the crafts of American blues guitar, traditional Italian cooking, and classical literature. Hellenga superimposes classical, Italian, Persian, and American cultures on one another—much like the palimpsest of history that Alan “Woody” Woodhull, the protagonist, sees in Rome’s skyline. These layers give the story structure and depth and make it resonate with meaning.

The principal narrative of The Fall of a Sparrow centers around a terrorist bombing that occurred in Bologna in August, 1980, killing the oldest of Woody’s three daughters. The novel begins seven years after the bombing, as the terrorists are finally to go on trial in Bologna, with a mood not of crisis and trauma but of reflection and old grief. The first person narration of Woody’s middle daughter, Sara, opens, closes, and bisects Woody’s story, a framing device reminiscent of a Greek chorus, putting a thoughtful distance between the reader and Woody, reminding the reader to listen for the novel’s moral lessons.

Woody has continued with his life as a classics professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college after the death of his daughter Cookie, but he has not learned to accept the loss. When college politics force him out of his professorship, Woody leaves for Italy to attend the terrorists’ trial both as journalist and as the father of a victim. He plays his guitar for money, enters into a relationship with an Italian restaurant owner, and before he even realizes it, has begun a new life.

Hellenga’s book is about love, particularly about Woody’s love for the women in his life—his ex-wife, three daughters, and several successive lovers. Each is a wonderful mystery to him. They are emblems of love and life, and the quiet tone of the novel belies the passion with which Woody loves them and believes they save his life. Physical love is his religion; it is a celebration in the face of death; it is earthly and natural, yet spiritual and transcendent; it defies all moral codes; and it cannot be governed or directed by mortals.

All of Hellenga’s characters, men and women, seek closure, most often in the form of forgiveness. They seek it for themselves, those who have hurt them, and the God who has brought them anguish and despair.

Though they hurt people around them, they are not villains, just human. Hellenga shows the reader that passionate love, though it can violate someone’s sense of honor, or cause pain, is unavoidable, and so is the forgiveness that follows.

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