Often I wonder what keeps me turning the pages of a particular book. Some of it is pure curiosity: what happens next? Many readers like to feel they’re being informed, which may influence the current fashion for historical fiction. (We are a pragmatic nation, after all, and enjoy thinking how much we’ve learned about the Middle Ages from Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.) Sometimes a novel’s setting is enough to keep me faithful: I keep reading Cara Black’s Parisian murder mysteries even though I don’t like the detective or the writing. Character development is probably the factor I’m most loyal to which explains my deep appreciation for Anthony Trollope, a brilliant psychologist.
And then sometimes, you just have to trust the author. Which brings me to Ron Hansen’s Exiles. I greatly liked his Mariette in Ecstasy, in which a young nun exhibits stigmata to the consternation of her religious superiors. (There is, by the way, quite a substantial nun literature, much of which is very good. Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake is another example.) Exiles joins an biographical narrative of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins with an account of a shipwreck in 1875 in which five German nuns died. Hopkins, who had abandoned writing poetry when he joined the Society of Jesus, wrote a long narrative poem on the subject.
Hansen develops the two narrative threads separately, alternating the Hopkins chapters with the nun sections. Patience is required. Hansen is informative on the Jesuit tradition and vivid on the discomfort suffered by the nuns whose fate we know from the start. Greater than the physical suffering is the anguish in their souls as they face their deaths as exiles, far from any sense of accomplishment. Hopkins died similarly frustrated, and his poetry was only appreciated decades later.
The Hopkins passages are moving: the death scene is especially strong. Though Hansen worked to individualize his five German nuns, I kept confusing them. The shipwreck is vivid without being affecting. The writing was a stumbling-block for me overall: Hansen’s prose shifts between poetic description (lots of clouds like quilts) and declarative clean action marked by occasional 21st century informalities. Yes, I’m a pedant, but words like “snuck” and “savvy” jar in a narrative set in the 19th century.
I couldn’t have put this book down; Hansen makes Hopkins so sympathetic that you need to honor the poet by finishing the story. But Hansen has also written about Jesse James. Think I’ll pass on that.