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Exiles: A Novel Paperback – June 23, 2009
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Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) wrote some of the most beautiful and innovative poetry in English of the late 19th century. In Hansen's vivid fiction, Hopkins is a promising Oxford graduate who writes verse throughout college, converts to Roman Catholicism in his early 20s and takes church orders. Those acts ostracize him from his family and silence his poetry. In parallel with Hopkins's story, Hansen explores the event that jolts Hopkins back into writing in 1875: the sinking of the Deutschland—whose victims include five Catholic nuns exiled from Germany by Bismarck—at the mouth of the Thames. Delivering a deft blend of literary biography and disaster tale, Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy, etc.) wrings a white-knuckled drama out of the lives of the poet/priest and five extraordinary German women, who were headed to St. Louis, Mo., to lead the American branch of their order. As for Hopkins, his poetry is poorly received for its unconventionality, and his Jesuit superiors punish him for his oddities (Hansen steers clear of Hopkins's sexuality). Hansen finds in the difficult paths of six remarkable people the pursuit of a tranquil, soothing God of intimacy and tolerance and unquenchable love. Fans of Hopkins's verse will cherish the chance to revisit the astonishing 280-line The Wreck of the Deutschland, reprinted as a coda. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Veteran historical novelist Hansen (whose previous works include Atticus, 1996, and Hitler’s Niece, 1999) brilliantly, if soberly, weaves two interrelated story lines into a riveting novel based on the factual background to the writing of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ classic epic poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” The two story lines—one, about what drew Hopkins to write the poem, and, two, about the lives of five Catholic nuns who drowned in the grounding of the German liner off the coast of England in 1875—are thematically connected, in addition to the literal one between author and poetic work. Born and raised in the Church of England, Hopkins as a young man not only converted to Roman Catholicism but also became a Jesuit priest. Thus, he was in spiritual exile from his original church and from his family, who were uncomfortable with his conversion, and when sent by the Jesuits to teach in Dublin, he was cast into physical exile from his native country. The five nuns, whose individual stories Hansen brings to light, were being sent into exile in the U.S. by their convent in Germany, in the shadow of the anti-Catholic laws being promulgated by the Bismarck regime. The tragic voyage of the ship the nuns were unfortunate enough to book passage on is itself chronicled with a heart-thumping vividness. --Brad Hooper --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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I was wrong. His new novel, Exiles, a curious and effective combination of novel and biography, is the best thing he's done to date. It left me breathless.
In the novel, Hansen cuts back and forth between the lives and death of the wonderful, bewildering, and innovative poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and five German Franciscan nuns, America-bound, who perished when the "Deutschland" hit a sandbar off the British coast in the dead of winter. Hopkins was so moved by the newspaper accounts of their death that he wrote a long, 35-stanza poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," reflecting on their unhappy end.
In Exiles, Hansen speculates about why Hopkins was so affected by the accident. His suggestion is sensitive and nuanced. Hopkins feels a connection with the nuns because all of them are exiles, both literally and spiritually. Literally, the nuns are exiled from their German homeland because of the anti-Church laws pushed through by the Iron Chancellor Bismarck; Hopkins is exiled from his beloved Wales to Dublin, a locale he hated and which in many ways contributed to his early death. Spiritually, all six of the characters are exiles from their true home, God. They're thrust into "a world sour with sinning. Exiles, then, not from Germany, not from Europe, but from Paradise, from Heaven" (p. 192).
There is, however, a darker exilic theme in the novel expressed most explicitly in something one of the doomed nuns says: "We sometimes seem God's playthings. The dice he rolls" (p. 186). How to make sense of a shipwreck which destroys the good and the evil, the innocent and the guilty, alike? How to understand arbitrary orders from religious superiors that exile a brilliant poet like Hopkins to a thankless and spirit-breaking assignment? How to deal with the thousand-and-one gratuities of existence that make life seem to be pointless, directionless, meaningless? In our frequently desperate search for coherency and order in a frequently chaotic, indifferent world, we feel ourselves to be orphans and exiles.
A brilliant and haunting novel. Highly recommended.
Hansen is one of those superb wordsmiths that comes out of the Iowa Writer's Workshop -- the writing itself is to savor. He is the master of the simile and diction -- you see this mastery in all of his books.
As in Mariette in Ecstasy, Hansen sees the humanness of his religious topics. The human encounter with the divine, with equal emphasis on both. Exile is the theme, and Kerry describes this well. There are many layers to this theme. One that appeals to me is how we exile ourselves by our own aspirations. The nuns aspire to work in Missouri, Hopkins to be a recognized, great poet and Jesuit. No one succeeds (in their lifetime, at least). All of us end up in a place that is different from where we had aspired to be. We exile ourselves. Hopkins and the nuns (most of them) accept that "God's will be done" -- they accept their self-exile in peace. And that acceptance of the divine will over the personal will makes the characters ultimately saintly. As a theme, exile has layers upon layers and Hansen's focus on this theme reveals a deep spirituality on his part.
This is a darkish book organized around deaths. But they are Easter deaths: there is bitterness, and there is, in the end, triumph. There is triumph for Hopkins because of the reception of his work after his death. And there is triumph for the nuns because Hansen wrote this book and told their story. Now, we can all remember them.