Monday, June 30, 2008

Book Review: Suffering the Storm

Reviewed by Mutt Ploughman

Exiles, by Ron Hansen. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 224 pages.

I notice a funny thing when I read reviews of historical novels. Many times, probably more often than not, the reviewer will make some kind of passing judgment about whether the novelist “got the details right” about, say, village life in the Ming Dynasty, or if the writer “did their homework” well in drawing a convincing portrait of 12th century Lisbon, or Chicago during Prohibition, or pre-historic Egypt, or what have you. But how would they know? When you think about it, the only way the average reviewer knows whether the writer actually “got it right” or “did their homework” is if they did the exact same homework. How likely is that?

For most readers – meaning those of us who do not get compensated to review books – I have to assume that the criteria for determining whether a novelist has succeeded in recreating another place and time has less to do with whether the writer has described a world that was historically true, and a lot more to do with whether they have described one that feels true. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones commented rather prosaically a few years ago, “If I say it’s 1855 Virginia, then you’ll believe me until I say something to contradict that.”[1] What a power trip! No wonder people often think of writers as narcissists.

The thing is, Jones is correct. I mention his words here because they kept coming back to me as I read the harrowing dramatization of the demise of a German ocean liner called the Deutschland that occupies a large portion of Ron Hansen’s moving and eloquent new novel, Exiles. I have no idea whether Hansen, who is in possession of excellent credentials when it comes to writing historical novels (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hitler’s Niece, Mariette in Ecstasy), actually got the details “right” in his minute-by-minute charting of the ship’s fateful course, for example, or his explanation of what sort of cuisine was available on the dinner menu on December 6, 1875, the night the ship ran aground in the Thames River. I trust that he did the necessary research.

What I do know is how foreboding and gripping it felt to read about these details, and many others. I could clearly visualize the d├ęcor inside of the ship’s restaurant; I could shudder in the bitterness of the icy December winds strafing the passengers along the rails; and later, horribly, I was forced to experience, uncomfortably, the agonizing final moments of a young nun’s life as she was swept under the merciless waves and into the void of the sea.

Consider the following artfully-constructed sentences to decide if you feel it too:

A great wave boomed against the ship, and cannoning white seawater that seemed high and heavy as a house hit Sister Henrica full on, joining her to its onwardness. She screamed and could hear other men and women screaming as she and they were carried on the raft of its swift, stinging journey across the width of the ship. She flailed in a last chance for the ship’s railing, but she was plunged over the side of the Deutschland and into the coldest cold of water she’d ever felt.

Exiles – Ron Hansen’s finest novel since 1996’s Atticus – is about more than just a shipwreck, however. It is both inspired by and steeped in the life and work of the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who submerged his own passion for writing stunningly original religious poetry in favor of the unheralded lifestyle of a humble but misunderstood teacher and clergyman.

The novel opens with a young Hopkins’ discovery of a London Times news item reporting on the fate of the German liner and its passengers, which included five young nuns en route to the United States, themselves exiled by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s crackdown on Roman Catholicism during Germany’s Second Reich. Moved by the suffering of his sisters in the Catholic faith, one of whom was reported to have howled into the gales, “Oh Christ, come quickly!”, Hopkins is inspired to create. We see him laboring over and reluctantly sharing his now-classic poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” with his friends and colleagues, and are privy, thanks to surviving correspondence and Hansen’s imaginings, to their less than enthusiastic responses.

From there, Exiles ventures forth on two fronts, intertwined with one another: Hopkins’ early apprenticeship, ordination, and increasingly inglorious assignments in Wales and Ireland as a young Jesuit; and the fated voyage of the Deutschland, related from the point of view of the five young nuns. The somewhat strange juxtaposition of these two narratives can be held responsible for one of the novel’s few flaws. There is a marked, almost startling downshift in tone and momentum that occurs in the passages between an account of an ocean liner in the throes of a disastrous journey and the muted, somber life experiences of a physically frail, intellectually incisive but often anguished Jesuit priest of the 19th century.

With each transition from the terrifying melee aboard the doomed ship back to the interior landscape of Father Hopkins’ religious and artistic struggles, even the most spiritually attuned readers will feel at least an initial letdown. Readers of fiction always have the foremost expectation to be entertained, and rightfully so. Even though we know from the beginning what happens to the suffering passengers on the Deutschland, we yearn to experience it viscerally. Hansen delivers on this front, but he also demands that we slow down frequently to ruminate on the consequences of Hopkins’ crucial but far less dramatic spiritual tempest, and this may tax some readers’ patience.

Yet weaving these two storylines together also accounts for the utter singularity of Hansen’s accomplishment. Given his track record of writing books like the exceptionally detailed and thrilling The Assassination of Jesse James... and the luminous, spiritually intoxicating Mariette in Ecstasy, this is a novel that only Ron Hansen could have written. One might make the case that he was destined or even called to do so. For Hansen understands perfectly well that while these alternating stories may not align in terms of their aesthetic impression, they cleave to one another on the metaphorical level.

Hopkins immediately identified with the deceased nuns because they were ‘exiles’, like himself: he was an Anglican convert whose family never accepted or understood his embrace of Roman Catholicism, let alone his vocation to the priesthood. As Hansen details the arc of his religious and artistic career, both burdened with limitations and frustrations, we recognize that Hopkins’ own course is steadily running aground, and his early death exposes the tragic consequences.
When, late in the novel, an ailing Hopkins (he died of typhoid at age 44) comments to a fellow Jesuit that he ‘just needs some change, some relief’, we feel that in spite of its muted expression, the soul that utters this lamentation is in similar peril to the one who cried out for Christ in the midst of a terrifying vortex. Additionally, both the five young nuns and Hopkins achieved a certain type of martyrdom, in that they floundered and ultimately suffered while on earth, but maintained their fidelity to God in the face of it all, and the fruits of their labor outlived them and nourished others by their eventual confluence in Hopkins’ classic poem.

Ron Hansen, a Roman Catholic deacon himself who happens to hold the title of the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor of English at Santa Clara University, has erected a unique and engrossing platform upon which to deliver an uncommon and beautiful performance. Exiles exploits his considerable insight into and fascination with matters of the spirit as well as his natural gifts as an engaging storyteller and graceful prose stylist. When you read Exiles, you will vicariously experience both the horror and anguish of a terrible tragedy aboard a doomed ocean vessel and the agonizing struggle of a heart yearning to discover God and bring honor to Him through the expression of its deepest desires and doubts.

The fact that both of these experiences will resonate powerfully in your own heart afterwards bears testimony to Hansen’s victory in this wonderful novel. To purloin a phrase once used by Thomas Merton to profile another religious figure, while it may be a dark and perilous journey, Exiles ultimately ends in glory.

[1] The Washington Post, October 30, 2003.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Didn't read the whole review because I didn't want to spoil my own experience with the novel, but judging by the ending it appears you found Hansen's gutsy literary experiment to be a rousing success. The novel certainly sounds to me like an unusual amalgamation of spiritual reflection and disaster tale, and it's almost a given that such a strange combination of emotions and themes would appeal to a limited audience. Yet you get the sense that this doesn't matter all that much to Hansen. I am sure that he knew in taking on this project that it was destined to be misunderstood (or maybe "mis'd" altogether!) by many, and it's refreshing to see a writer so clearly motivated by the inner promptings of the heart, rather than the siren song of the hefty paycheck... it will be fascinating to see what Hansen decides to take on after this. I know you've guessed Mutt that it would be a collection of stories, and considering he's published some recently it seems a solid bet. But the next novel is far harder to predict. One thing seems certain: it's not going to be dictated by what looks promising on a publisher's sales forecast.