Exiles--Ron Hansen

I have read a good many of Ron Hansen's books with great pleasure.  In fact, the only one that I didn't care for was Hitler's Niece, and perhaps the less said about it, the better.  But I have to admit that I found Exiles a long haul.

The first half of the book traces the lives of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the five nuns who died in the wreck of the Deutschland, which Hopkins memorialized in one of his most challenging poems.  It took me three running tries to get through this portion of the book, after which, the story picks up with the events at sea and the remainder of Hopkins's life.

The problem this novel seems to present for Hansen is that he wasn't really sure where he wanted to be--straight fiction or biography.

from Exiles
Ron Hansen

And gradually he began considering a religious conversion, for it seemed to him it was the Church of Rome that had given Great Britain so much that was "high, elevating, majestic, affecting, and captivating," while the Church of England, "its very title an offense," had given rise to "religious persecution, the jurisdiction of tyrants, and an Establishment whose highest praise for itself was that it admitted a variety of opinions."  Writing to a friend, Hopikns indicated that he felt Roman Catholicism paradoxically intensified and subjectively destroyed what he called the "sordidness of things," and he felt that would be enough inducement to lead many people to the Roman Catholic Church. In an age when theological differences were greatly exaggerated, the legitmiacy of Anglican dogma and sacraments, particularly that of High Communion and the prayer of Consecration that omitted the Holy Spirit became a nagging worry to him. . .
 This authorial voice is striving to present a factual picture of a man in his time.  We call that biography, and much of the novel has these interspersed interpolations from sources never cited, although broadly touched upon in "A Note Upon Sources."  In a word, Hansen attempts to create a nonfiction novel presenting the broad lines of biography and in so doing produces a double annoyance--a novel that reads nothing like a novel and a biography that is insufficiently documented.Add to this the tremendously long hagiography of 5 persons undeserving the honor, and you have a challenge of a book to read.  Also, add the central conceit that Hopkins, like these women was himself an "exile"  and you have a series of parallelisms that is, at best forced, and at worst, obvious.

Nevertheless, there are some wonderful insights and some extremely good moments as Hansen describes the nature of the tragedy that befell the Deutschland and the fate of its passengers, including the five nuns headed to America to open a school and hospital for children.  And there are some profoundly touching moments--moments when Hansen enters full on into novelistic mode and presents us characters:

from Exiles
Ron Hansen

Reverend Tom Finlay heard his confession, and included in it was Hopkins's confession not just of ins such as petulacne, laziness, and rash judgment but of shutting off the grace of inspiration by not paying enough attention to his poetic gift.

The confessor sated with confusion. "I didn't know you wrote poetry."

"I don't," Hopkins said, "but I did once." And then he looked away.

Even here we have much too much of the summary and only a glimmering of the novelist's stock and trade--showing.  But it is enough to revive a book that does not know what it wants to be.

Perhaps a bold experiment, but for this reader one that failed more often than it succeeded.  Neverthless, for its good points, and for those who enjoy Hansen's work, worth a look.

***--Recommended for Hansen completists


  1. Thanks for the review. I loved Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus and A Stay Against Confusion, but didn't care for Hitler's Niece either. Won't go out of my way to get this one, but at least Hansen has made some contributions to contemporary Catholic fiction.

  2. Dear Emily,

    I couldn't agree more with your last line--He has. I even liked _Isn't it Romantic_ and _The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford._ And there are some good aspects to this novel; however, I do believe that it is a nobly failed experiment.




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