Exiles by Ron Hansen
A fascinating premise: Hansen takes a real historical event – a shipwreck – about which a famous poem was written, and writes a novel about both the shipwreck and the writing of the poem. While at times it almost felt like a nonfiction novel, the author’s evocation of the tragedy of both the shipwreck and the early death of the poet (Gerard Manley Hopkins) are masterful. The novel alternates between the story of Hopkins, a Jesuit priest who has chosen to keep his poetic skills under wraps in deference to his religious calling; and the story of five German nuns, en route to America, who die in the shipwreck. While the nuns may be the primary exiles of the story, it seems that Hopkins, too, is an exile from his own true calling as a poet. The quiet details about the characters bring them to life, even as we watch them die. Haunting.