THE GREAT Sicilian mystery writer Leonardo Sciascia once quipped, “A man who dies tragically is, at any moment of his life, a man who will die tragically.” For the historical novelist, this is a potent proposal — essentially, the dramatic key to a story in which the ending is predetermined and plot twists are not an option. In Ron Hansen’s novel “Exiles,” the dramatic inevitable belongs to the five drowned German nuns to whose memory the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins dedicated perhaps his most important work, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a poem that was neither understood during his lifetime nor terribly well-liked.
Returning to the religious territory of his acclaimed 1991 book, “Mariette in Ecstasy,” Hansen tells the story of the poet-turned-Jesuit seminarian so moved by news of the 1875 shipwreck that he breaks a seven-year abstinence from writing to compose a tribute. Hansen’s novel, like the poem it’s based on, takes up the dramatic scene aboard the Deutschland, a grisly, slow-motion sequence in which 157 people die from exposure, drowning or battering waves after the German steamship ran aground on a sandbar in the North Sea. “They fought with God’s cold — / And they could not and fell to the deck / (Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled / With the sea-romp over the wreck.”
more from the LA Times here.