In his 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen wrote so convincingly of religious experiences that he made me wonder if, as an atheist, I was missing out on something.
He returns to cloistered life in Exiles, though he's not as successful at conveying its mysteries. Hansen splits his narrative into parallel stories, one centered on poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his struggles writing The Wreck of the Deutschland, the other dovetailing into the lives of five nuns, German exiles, who died in that shipwreck.
Beginning in December 1875, we encounter Hopkins as a Jesuit seminarian seven years after he has given up writing poetry to focus on his ministries. He remains faithful to his vow, but the urge to write never leaves: "And yet
. . . there was always an interior and hard to quell 'and yet.' "
News of the Deutschland and its casualties trigger the desire to write again, and with the blessing of the seminary's rector, Hopkins takes up his pen. His dreams are plagued with "the stupefying awfulness" of Longfellow, and Hopkins imagines his work as something with "a new rhythm that would recreate the native and natural stresses of speech."
Like much of Hansen's work, Exiles is fiction based on fact. Whereas history has previously offered him a starting point for grand storytelling, here it burdens. Hansen never escapes the biographer's voice, keeping readers distant from subjects already isolated by their vocation. We gain insight into Hopkins as an artist, but his spiritual struggles are never fully explored.
The stories of the five nuns suffer from a similar problem, surprising because little was known about them. But, as Hansen explains in an author's note, he turned to memoirs detailing 19th century religious life, which weigh his narrative down. Where his imagination comes to life is in his description of the doomed vessel and its sinking. There, Hansen finally releases himself from the anchor of history, and his story sails.
Vikas Turakhia teaches English in Ohio.