Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mariette in Ecstasy (thoughts)

In keeping with the cloistered theme, I thought I'd spend today discussing Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. I first read about this book on the Duke alumni reading club (no, I didn't go to Duke; I can't remember how I found out about the club). It sounded good, but also kind of obscure, so I didn't think anymore of it. Then, when I was looking for books for the Book to Movie challenge, this was on the list; I checked with my library, and I was able to ILL (for free!) a copy. Thus, I had high, but vague, expectations as I opened it up.

I knew that the book was set in a convent, in the early 1900s, in upstate New York. I also knew that a young girl would enter the convent, and apparently experience mystical religious acts. That was about it.

The best and most surprising feature of the book was the style; Hansen uses everything from lists to journal entries to interviews to simple third person narrative to tell the story. The book feels like a collage. In lesser hands, this could have been a disaster, however Hansen really pulls it off. The first things the reader sees are a "Directoire des religieuses du Couvent de Notre-Dame des Afflictions" (a list of all the convent members, with their age and job) and a schedule of "The Winter Life of the Sisters of the Crucifixion." In addition to instantly creating an atmosphere for the reader, these lists come in handy throughout the story as references; it was quite nice of Hansen to put them up front so I didn't have to search for them. Then, the reader is led into the story through a series of observations, rendered in simple, standalone sentences, that feels like a mediation.
Limestone pebbles on the path in the garth. Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus

Mother Celine gracefully walking, head down.


Mooncreep and spire.

Ears are flattened to the head of a stone panther waterspout.
Slowly, the sentences become paragraphs and characters are introduced. The effect of this writing, for me at least, was to really slow me down. I began to concentrate on every word of the story, and I built up quite a detailed mental image of the convent.

The main plot arrives when Mariette Baptiste enters the convent as a postulant. She takes her devotion very personally, carrying on a personal relationship with Jesus, and wanting to suffer as he suffered. She's also beautiful, and at just seventeen, some of the older nuns feel quite wary of her. As the book wears on, Mariette's experiences become more and more extreme; the nuns divide into two camps: either Mariette is a saint or a shameless faker. Meanwhile, the resident priest is trying to discover if a miracle truly has occured.

Essentially, Mariette in Ecstasy is a study of group relationships. It's fascinating to watch the various nuns take sides, to hear what they say and why, and to see the convent's atmosphere become poisoned. Hansen does an incredible job of sweeping the reader into this, so that you feel the discomfort of the priest, the skepticism of the nuns, the pure belief of Mariette. The writing throughout the book is powerful, and the only reason it didn't get 5 stars was the ending. Hansen didn't really seem sure what to do about it, which was a little frustrating.

Nevertheless, I'd highly recommend this book to everyone. It's a short read (179 pages in hardcover) and definitely a page turner. The characters are sharply drawn, but Hansen is one of those authors who trusts the reader, and leaves gaps for her to fill in. My favourite kind of book-engaging, thoughtful, fascinating. It will echo in my mind for some time.


heather (errantdreams) said...

Beautiful. That really is the kind of style that could come across as affectation if it isn't used to good effect---which it certainly sounds like it is here!

Eva said...

Heather, I'm glad you agree that it's beautiful. :) I agree, it could have easily slipped into affectation, but Hansen has an extraordinary touch. I'll have to hunt down more of his work!

Callista said...

Wow that sounds interesting. Although is doesn't really sound like something I would normally read, I'm going to put it on my TBR list and try it out. I think that's neat that he uses different types of writing in the one book.

I've added a link to your review for the Book to Movie challenge. I'm also hosting two other challenges come January and possibly a third.

Bybee said...

It's hard to believe that Hansen wrote both Mariette In Ecstacy and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford -- they're such different subjects, but both books have a sort of dreamlike feel to them in places.

Sandra said...

You make this sound very interesting. Thank you for reviewing it.

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membrillu said...

Great review of a great novel!
I only disagree with your comment on the ending. For me it was one of the few possible endings to allow for Mariette to own her experience and learn something from it. Also, the letter to Mother Philomène is beautiful.

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