When they bother with it at all, contemporary American novelists usually treat religion as material for satire or pulp horror, the province of televangelists, weirdos, and exorcists — which makes Ron Hansen’s new novel about the mysteries of spiritual passion seem practically heretical.
Mariette in Ecstasy begins in the autumn of 1906 in upstate New York, when a 17-year-old girl wearing ”her mother’s wedding trousseau of white Holland cloth and watered silk” leaves her father’s house to join the Sisters of the Crucifixion. Beautiful and educated and eager to assume the rigors of cloistered life, Mariette Baptiste is a perfect model of obedience and piety — at first.
But she grows progressively more zealous, swooning as she prays (”I float out of myself”), scalding her hands in the ”penance” of hot water, going days without food or sleep, writing long, sensuous letters that describe her visions, and finally, on Christmas Eve, displaying the five wounds of Christ on the cross: nail-size bleeding holes in each hand and foot and a ”laceration between the fifth and sixth ribs.”
Are Mariette’s stigmata a bona fide miracle or just evidence of self-mutilation? Is the girl a saint or a sham? The priory’s routine and amity are destroyed in a single night as the nuns choose sides, arguing bitterly among themselves. An official inquiry is convened to learn the truth, and as testimony is taken, Hansen’s theme becomes dramatically self-evident: If, as an elderly priest declares, ”we mortals have such a great hunger for supernatural things,” why are we so appalled and angered by their manifestation?
From its first ghostly image of the moon to its final, jolting glimpse of Mariette in late middle age, this is an astonishing novel, maybe even a great one, and further proof that Ron Hansen (Nebraska, Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is a writer of enormous sensitivity, finesse, and reach; he doesn’t just evoke time and place, he actually seems to transport you there. And then take you straight into the human heart. But in a season of gigantic novels about the CIA and Scarlett O’Hara and the devil in Castle Rock, Maine, Mariette in Ecstasy — slender, meditative, exquisitely crafted — seems almost predestined for commercial limbo. If that happens, it would be both a crime and a sin. A+