Exiles: A Novel
Exiles: A Novel
Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
227 pp., $23.00

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Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore

"Hope Had Mourning On"

In his new novel, the author of Mariette in Ecstasy turns to the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the story behind his great poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland."

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I think due to the book's curious form, at few points are we able to forget the writer. There is a self–consciousness about the thing. The reader feels he's being told to open wide for yet another spoonful of facts, the writer saying, Now I will summarize the diaries for you. With quotes. Lots of quotes. Now I will draw you a picture of sweet nuns, (with standard issue sky–blue eyes, except for one with eyes the color of a blue Dresden ware). The nuns' most interesting aspect to my mind being height, one 5 foot 10, one 6 foot 2. A reader wants to be too caught up in the story to put the book down to go Google the "average height of German nuns in 1870." On my fifth mid–page Googling I feared Hansen's addiction to detail might well be contagious. Ditto: his use of adjectives, sufficient in profusion to sink the Deutschland on a balmy day.

The strongest writing is in Hansen's telling of the shipwreck itself. It is very well done. But at 212 pages (not counting the appendix, where Hopkins' poem is given, and the note on sources), the book is overlong. It takes the nuns an age to die (well I'm sorry, but it does.). We can be made to weep, and should, at any death, but the life lost matters to the telling. I'm happy to allow a writer as many pages as it takes to make me witness to a life's ending; all I ask is that when he's done, I care more, rather than less, about the loss. Formula won't answer. Not five times in a row.

One feels appropriately churlish quibbling with such a sweetly told tale. This book has more well–intentioned people than I've met in my whole life. The cheerful bunch of monks, whose only sin as far as I can tell is a certain inordinate fondness for punning, are about as lowdown as things get. Here there is smooth, sentimental sweetness, and were the world no more than that, we might be satisfied. The problem is that when we take the measure of the man, we want a fuller story. Hopkins suffers. He really does. We want more than passing reference to his depression, self–denial, disappointment, family schism, especially from a writer who can cause us to develop full–blown chilblains and to shiver at the nuns' wet icy habits clinging to their rasping chests too frozen for death rattles to be heard above the slapping waves. (I am fully capable of being as annoying as the next person.)

I leave the merits of the book, and I'm sure there are many, to another reader who will, and should, herald them. I think that praise comes best from fans and lovers, like minds, kindred spirits. There is faith that must be kept within every camp.

Gerard Manley Hopkins gave to his God, his life, his art, his best shot. And just because the man, the priest, the poet, asked so very little for himself, does not mean that's what he should get. And we, in benediction, would have the One who fathers–forth whose beauty is past change, agree.

Linda McCullough Moore, essayist and fiction–writer, author of The Distance Between, lives and writes in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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