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. Classical, Italian, Persian, and American cultures are superimposed on one another much like the palimpsest of history that Alan "Woody" Woodhull, the protagonist, sees in Rome's skyline. The layers give the present structure and depth and make it resonate with meaning. Hellenga again explores the myriad subtle technical details of the creation and preservation of beauty, this time through the crafts of American blues guitar, traditional Italian cooking, and classical literature.
The principal narrative of The Fall of a Sparrow centers on 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 strage, 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, several successive lovers and 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. Even the bitter, misguided dean of Woody's college and the woman who planted the bomb that killed his daughter are like fallen angels, and he stubbornly believes they are better than men. Though they will not let him, he wants to love them, but doesn't understand how.
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.
Reviewed by Robin Taylor.