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Exiles, A Novel – Ron Hansen

September 10, 2008

Where I’m concerned, any book by Ron Hansen is an event. Hence earlier in the summer I said about how delighted I was that his latest was being published just in time for my summer ‘sabbatical’. Hansen’s powers of description, his imagination and character development are wonderful. And he writes within a framework of faith, with the result that the great themes and issues of religion and faith run through each novel.

I’m a big fan.

This novel uses a form that he used to great effect in The Assassination of Jesse James and Hitler’s Niece, that is novelised accounts of actual historical events. In doing so he investigates characters and motives enmeshed in the great events of their day.

Exiles brings together two stories from the late 19th century. On the one hand is the life of Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who abandons a literary career at Oxford to follow a call to the priest hood. He moves from the wonder and stimulation of Oxford, to a bleak seminary in Wales where he tries to bury his poetic impulses in favour of wordplay with his colleagues and peers.

Until he comes across the account of a notorious shipwreck which leads him to abandon his silence with an outpouring of extraordinary poetry, including ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland‘, the story of the ship in question. (By the way, the poem itself is worth reading. It’s long and complex but magnificent)

On board the Deutschland were five young nuns from a Catholic convent in Germany which was being closed under Bismarck’s laws against Catholic religious orders. These nuns were being sent as missionaries by their order to Missouri to  begin a new life. The ship carrying them ran aground in the Thames estuary and more than 60 people lost their lives, including the nuns.

The two stories are woven together in an exploration of the religious life and its motivations as well as its heroic dimensions, expressed in simple acts of grace in the face of turmoil and pain.

But it didn’t work for me. The story of the shipwreck is thrilling, but those parts of the book concerned with Hopkins tended to drag a little. There may be a paradox at the heart of this book here which hints at the limitations of the form. So much more is known about Hopkins and his life and work that Hansen has little room to cut loose with his creative powers. On the other hand we know very little about the nuns. We know a little of their upbringings, we have some survivor accounts of the Deutschland (and of course we have Hopkin’s poem) and we know where the nuns are buried. Apart from that Hansen must work to make them live for us, which he does. Religious life in 19th Century Germany is described wonderfully, their different reactions to the impending wreck, the terror of that awful night…all are described in an exciting and engaging way. I lived it with those nuns and admired them. And whilst Hopkins appears that he would be great company, those passages lacked the zing of the parallel story.

Still, Hansen is always worth a read and if you haven’t read him yet I would recommend something like Atticus, or Jesse James or even Mariette in Ecstasy first.

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