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. NarcissusSlowly, 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.
Mother Celine gracefully walking, head down.
Mooncreep and spire.
Ears are flattened to the head of a stone panther waterspout.
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.