While practicing social distancing, I’ve decided to read from a list of the 25 most important novels in my life.
Ron Hansen’s MARIETTE IN ECSTASY came out in 1991. I read it then and I re-read it this week. This haunting, melodic, vivid story woke me up almost thirty years ago to what “voice” means in fiction, and the impression the novel made on me then remains indelible today.
Mariette is a beautiful 17-year-old postulant when she enters the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in upstate New York in 1906, against the wishes of her father. She quickly becomes a favorite of the other sisters until she begins to exhibit the signs of divine possession, specifically experiencing the stigmata — bleeding from locations of Christ’s wounds when he was nailed to the cross.
Some of the sisters believe her and adore her, while others insist she is a clever fraud or sexual hysteric.
As readers, we are immersed in the strange, spartan and superstitious world of the convent and the extreme religious devotion of its sisters. And we are also immersed and mesmerized by the language of the novel:
Mariette’s “wet blue eyes are overawed as she stares ahead at a wall and she seems to be listening to something just above her, as a girl might listen to the cooing of pigeons.” And “Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor.”
“Waterdrops from the night’s dew haltingly creep down green reeds.”
The novel is short (179 pages) and the limited plot unfolds like a mystery: Is Mariette actually God’s vessel? Hansen doesn’t provide an easy answer, which only adds to the enigma and increasing tension.
This novel had a profound impact on me in 1991, and still does today.
5 stars out of 5