In "Exiles," author Ron Hansen chronicles Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins' breakthrough as an artist

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by Ron Hansen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

240 pp., $23

Living in Wales and Ireland in the latter half of the 19th century, ignored by the literary establishment, Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a series of extraordinary religious poems that are unique in English literature. Hopkins created a rhythm and meter that translated into words the glory and terror of God’s love. His tense, nervy, probing language anticipated the crisis in faith that would come with World War I.

In “Exiles,” his newest novel, author Ron Hansen (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) chronicles Hopkins’ breakthrough as an artist — a poem he wrote in 1875 titled “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which commemorates the shipwreck deaths of five Franciscan nuns who were all drowned in the Thames River during a terrible storm.

Forced to leave Germany because of their Catholic faith, the nuns were on their way to America via England. Hansen, working with precious little source material, reconstructs minibiographies for each of these women. He counterpoints the history of their doomed voyage with the equally ill-fated life of Hopkins, an odd, precocious genius misunderstood and underappreciated by his religious superiors and literary friends.

Not surprisingly, Hansen is more successful with the story of the shipwreck, which, of course, has built-in drama. He plots its trajectory with impressive skill: human error, the fierce chaos of the storm, the helpless lives, saved and taken, make for riveting reading.

Less compelling are the Hopkins chapters, which, although informative on how faith can influence artistic creation, can be long on the minutiae of Jesuit seminarian life.

What is most unsettling about “Exiles” is the cold extinction of hope that informs both narratives. In the throes of violent nature, the nuns’ deaths seem cruel but merciful. Hopkins’ long, slow demise before a God “watching with slack interest but resisting any temptation to intercede” seems just cruel.