Sparrow by James Hynes

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

James Hynes begins his story in a manner as creative as the story itself. Readers are in no doubt as to Sparrow’s ancestry, but yet are they? The story later reveals a very different origin. This is the story of a man whose name may well be Jacob, a man who chooses to call himself Sparrow. The book explains the oddness of the title.

Sparrow was raised in a brothel by a woman who chose to treat him as her son but was vigorous in denying any such relationship. The boy sings without reason and has learned to dodge trouble. He lives in a kitchen, in a herb scented garden, a dangerous tavern and finally the mysterious upstairs where prostitutes of every ethnic background practise their nefarious arts.

His beloved ‘mother’ Euterpe tells him stories, her lover the cook sends him on messages while all the time he is avoiding the blows of the brutal overseer and the chief prostitute, Melpomene. Sparrow’s world involves suffering, murder, robbery and the disintegration of society around him.

The book details Sparrow’s life as a child but then goes on to provide us with a word picture of the entirety of the Roman city of Carthargo Nova. Through Sparrow’s imagination we are provided a picture of the city’s markets, temples and taverns. He witnesses and explains for our benefit the paganism of Rome – the giving away of its codes and morals – as the new religion of Christianity overtakes the old. It is as though the two civilizations are painted as a moving picture’s backdrop with Sparrow the lead actor. In the movie, timeless change meets the developing character. Sparrow submits to the stones of the village children (until he responds in kind). He lives with the stress of a master preparing to sell him into slavery.

This is an unflinching and stimulating portrayal of sex, slavery and sisterhood in the pitiless back streets of a collapsing civilisation. Swallow is its last inhabitant, “a weathered piece of driftwood discarded by a receding tide, the sole remaining resident of a deserted town in an abandoned province at the bleeding edge of a dying empire”.

Yet it exists only in the imagination of James Hynes. Reading as a novel, or perhaps more as a biography, the reader is required to continually remember the true nature of the world being described. The events that Hynes describes in his scintillating prose are all too real. Sparrow lives in Hynes’s imagination but is a representation only, in the minds of his readers. We can observe with clear vision as young men run from slavery. Women practising lesbianism is all too likely in a world dominated by men. Hynes has successfully presented to the twenty-first century an imaginatively constructed but real new world.

Hynes identifies ‘prostitutes’ with ‘wolves’. This was common in some areas, undoubtedly a reference that the author has appropriated for his story.  He may have settled upon ‘lupa’ (a she-wolf), a nickname for a prostitute. The origins of the label are debatable, but one derivation comes from the story of the noble whore, Acca Laurentia, who was also known by the name Lupa and was associated with the legend of the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. Sparrow reveals a deep familiarity with the term.

Sparrow could well represent the last man on Earth. His story, in the hands of James Hynes, continues to fascinate.



by James Hynes


ISBN: 978 152909 240 0

$34.99; 466pp

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