Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) is an unusual book in both format and content, which may explain why it took four years or so before it was published in UK (my paperback, 1995).
I bought the book as I thought it might help in my research endeavours for The Bread of Tears (see below), but as it happens I’d amassed enough material to progress my Sister Rose novel so this book stayed on my shelf unread for many years. Finally, I got round to reading it.
Hansen writes in the present tense, and the point of view is omniscient, which seems apt considering the subject matter is the religious life in a convent. It begins as though it was a poem:
Upstate New York.
Half-moon and a wrack of grey clouds…
Wallowing beetles in green pond water.
Cattails sway and unsway.
Grape leaves rattle and settle again…
Wooden reaper. Walking plough. Hayrick.
Mother Celine gracefully walking, head down.
Mooncreep and spire.
Ears are flattened to the head of a stone panther water-spout…
… and so on…
Each separated by a scene-change space. Fortunately, these spaces do not contain the usual three asterisks; if they did, the pages would be peppered with them to distraction. Some scene shifts are only three lines of text, others one line. The shifts may be necessary as the point of view moves from one character to another: there are thirty-five nuns listed, their ages from 17 (Mariette) to 75.
Mariette is a postulant nun, the younger sister of the Reverend Mother Céline, 37; their father is the local doctor. Mariette’s beautiful and seems perfect in every way, a good hard-working pupil. And then she begins to bleed from hands, feet and side: genuine stigmata or a hoax? The various inhabitants of the convent are divided, some believing devoutly, others distrustful.
Hansen’s prose is in many ways like a screenplay, especially in the chosen tense, the visual descriptions and the scene shifts. A few critics point to the writing being ‘precious’; though I didn’t find it so: poetic in places, certainly. He masterfully captures the period, the daily life of a convent and its claustrophobic atmosphere. His powers of description put the reader there. Take, for example, two glimpses:
She sees cracked, parched lips and a trace of sour yellow; a forehead as hot, perhaps , as candle wax; frail eyelids that are redly lettered with tiny capillaries; green veins that tree and knot under the skin of her hands. (p91)
Mariette is giving her father the attention she would give a magician. She has imagined him through childhood as the king of a foreign country, but he has changed into a too-heavy man with a glossy moustache and unhealthy white nails and grey cinders of skin blemishes on his winter-reddened face…. (p96)
While not an easy read, with an inconclusive ending, it is a compulsive story. Across the Pond the book has garnered much praise and many favourable reviews over the years.
Ron Hansen is also the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (1985), the film being released in 2007. Mariette in Ecstasy was filmed (1996) but was not given a wide release.
The Bread of Tears
When she was a cop, she made their life hell.
Now she’s a nun, God help them!
Before taking her vows, Sister Rose was Maggie Weaver, a Newcastle policewoman. While uncovering a serial killer, she suffered severe trauma, and after being nursed back to health she becomes a nun. In her new calling she is sent to London to run a hostel for the homeless. Here, she does good works, and also combats prejudice and crime.
As she attempts to save a homeless woman from a local gang boss, events crystallise, taking her back to Newcastle, the scene of her nightmares, to play out the final confrontation against drug traffickers, murderers and old enemies in the police.
She finds her spiritual self and a new identity. She is healed through faith and forgiveness. It’s also about her surviving trauma and grief – a triumph of the human spirit, of good over evil.
This is a gritty and at times downright gruesome thriller. Written in the first person, Morton has achieved a true sense of feminine appeal in Maggie, the narrator, and despite her religious calling, she comes over as quite a sexy woman… I found myself totally empathising with this full-blooded, gutsy woman... All the characters and horrific events in this crime thriller are extremely visual and well-drawn, making this a riveting read. It would make a brilliant TV series! – Jan Warburton, author of The Secret, A Face to Die For
The Bread of Tears is available as a paperback and an e-book here.