Exiles tells the story of a relationship between five nuns exiled from Germany and the English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote one of his most famous poems in homage to their deaths; they were passengers on the Deutschland, which foundered in December of 1875. Hopkins himself was an exile from his family and society when he converted to Catholicism and entered the Jesuit order. The narrative moves back and forth in an oblique parallel between the Sisters’ disastrous adventure, memorialized in the poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and Hopkins’ own troubled life after his conversion. It also shifts backwards and forward in time to explore the context of the intimate lives of these individuals as they move to a convergence in history.
Hansen’s novel is fiction based on facts, difficult waters to navigate. On the one hand, much is known about Hopkins’ life as one of the most innovative of modern poets; on the other, almost nothing is known about the five Sisters who perished that fateful December. His narrative is a stirring insight into journeys both outward and inward of those exiled because of their faith. In the novel, both journeys are equally distressing. For Hopkins, the novel narrates primarily a personal struggle; for the five Sisters, it tells an exciting adventure. In both cases, the story is an exceptional description of torments that are spiritual, emotional, and psychological. Hansen has crafted an extraordinary work that balances and unites these worlds. He also includes the poem as an appendix, which reflects brilliantly the nature and complexity of not only the characters’ lives but of all lives.