By Ron Hansen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages. $23. ****
For the entirety of his career as a novelist, Ron Hansen has examined characters living on the lunatic fringe.
His first novel, “Desperadoes,” chronicled the life and times of the infamous Dalton gang. His second, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” explored the final years of the titular outlaw – in Hansen's expert hands, hyper-charismatic, bipolar, sociopathic – and the man who would befriend and murder him. The best-seller that followed, “Mariette in Ecstasy,” took a spiritual bent, showing a young nun at the turn of the century who begins to manifest the beautiful and terrible signs of interaction with divinity.
After this came two literary murder-mysteries: National Book Award finalist “Atticus,” the tale of a laconic rancher who, in attempting to understand the suicide of his manic-depressive son, achieves a truly remarkable resurrection, and “Hitler's Niece,” in which we see the maniacal dictator's private and personal holocaust.
Hansen's new novel, the historically accurate and stunningly original “Exiles,” is a logical extension of the author's project. In 1875, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins becomes obsessed with the shipwreck of the German vessel The Deutschland and, in particular, five of its passengers who drowned in the catastrophe – immigrant nuns fleeing the anti-Catholic Falk Laws of Otto Von Bismarck's Reich. Hopkins, having entered the cloistered life of the Society of Jesus, was himself in exile in a Welsh seminary, his creative energies seen by his Jesuit superiors as a potential liability, encouraged to forsake his poetry as an idle, secular pursuit.
Moved by the death of the sisters, he revives the practice and begins to compose what is a now-canonical elegy, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” He employed the beautiful and unusual metrics that would come to be known as “sprung rhythm,” a poetic strategy designed to imitate the rhythm of natural speech, constructed from feet in which the first syllable is stressed and may be followed by a variable number of unstressed syllables:
Thou mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
Alternating chapters detail Hopkins' pursuit of an art that would further distance him from his Jesuit brothers, and the tragic circumstances of the five nuns in their final moments aboard The Deutschland. Such a juxtaposition movingly portrays the shipwrecked life of a poet whose work would not find a readership until after his early death, as well as the sisters' harrowing plight and their bold persistence in the face of calamity.
Hansen's style retains its characteristic lyricism and precision, and he ventures further into an exploration of the themes of talent and obsession, faith and madness, art and destruction.
Aaron Gwyn is the author of the short story collection, “Dog on the Cross.” His novel, “The World Beneath,” will be published next April by W.W. Norton.
*= poor; **= fair; ***= good; ****= excellent