A Brief Review of Ron Hansen’s novel
by Chris Smith
Ron Hansen’s Exiles is a superbly written novel, one of the best that I have read in a long time; although frankly I’m pretty picky about the novels I read and don’t actually read that many. The storyline of this novel follows the life of the nineteenth century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, as he is inspired by the story of the sinking of a German oceanliner (and particularly that of five nuns on board) to give up his self-imposed “exile” from writing poetry and to pen the epic poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Having long been intrigued by monastic cultures, I was enthralled by Hansen’s earthy depictions of life in both the German convent and in Hopkins‘ monastery.
From everything I’ve read about Hopkins’ story, Hansen diligently strives here for historical accuracy. The one exception is his anachronistic telling of the nuns’ story, which he elongates in order to culminate their story in parallel with Hopkins‘ death. This device works well as it emphasizes the parallels between Hopkins and the German nuns both meeting their deaths as exiles in foreign lands. The obedience of these monastics even unto death is inspiring.
My one disappointment with this novel, and it is a significant one, is that Hansen could have developed Hopkins‘ internal struggles over writing (or not writing) much more than he did. Once I heard about the storyline that Exiles covered, I waited in eager anticipation for the psychological drama of Hopkins‘ wrestling with his vocation, but Hansen’s treatment was anticlimactic and I almost sped through the part of the story about Hopkins‘ decision to pick up the pen again without realizing what had happened.
Despite my disappointment on this point, Exiles is well worth your time as a significant story from both literary history and church history.
Hardcover. FSG. 2008.
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