Sunday, May 23, 2010

Exiles by Ron Hansen

It’s about dying

At first I was annoyed by the book’s setup – the many characters being introduced was like something out of the Towering Inferno. Laughable, really. Five young nuns in Germany, and the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. We learn their humble histories of why they decided to join religious orders and how the nuns came to be on the ship Deustchland, which ran aground in icy weather. The nuns froze to death and Hopkins wrote a poem about it. At a certain point, however, a tension begins to grow and the book becomes almost unbearable to read. How exactly will they die? And they all do – one by one. All six main characters have something in common – they have made a decision to try to live in a different way – to try to purge the ego of pride. But still to achieve something – in the nuns’s case – to help people. The practice of humility.

The counterpoint to the story of the doomed nuns is Hopkins’s daily life, his unsuccessful (so it seems) attempt to get traction with the Jesuits, the public rejection of his very weird poems. He was sort of a slight little nerd, and his poetry a passionate heartbeat. This book didn’t help me understand the connection. But it helped me understand some other things – by not overexplaining everything.

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