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by Ron Hansen

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1991
ISBN: 0-06-018214-8
Publisher: HarperCollins

 One of the enduring Christian mysteries is the existence of stigmatics (``people who bear in their bodies the injuries of Christ's crucifixion''). Hansen's third novel (astonishingly different from his Western historicals, Desperadoes, 1979, and The Assassination of Jesse James, 1987) is about a young stigmatic in an upstate New York priory in 1906. Mariette Baptiste is a 17-year-old postulant seeking to join the Sisters of the Crucifixion, a 200-year-old order with its motherhouse in Louvain, Belgium. The narrative covers the six months of Mariette's stay at the priory. She arrives in August, already ``the gossip of the summer'' because of her beauty and background. She is the daughter of the wealthy local doctor and the sister of the prioress, Mother Celine, 20 years her senior. The doctor, miserable at losing a second daughter in this way, feels Mariette is too ``high-strung'' for the convent; but for Father Marriott, the old priest who hears the sisters' confessions and becomes Mariette's most ardent champion, she is not neurotic but chaste. Hansen sets Mariette's preternatural experiences against the rhythms of priory life and the all-encompassing rhythms of the natural world. He is particularly good at dramatizing the central tension of priory life: the nuns' need for mutual affection, ruled impermissible because it distracts from their ``grandest passion,'' Jesus Christ. Mariette first feels Christ's wounds on Christmas Eve, as her sister is dying of cancer. Soon hundreds of lay people are coming to the priory, hoping to glimpse the stigmatic. The new prioress, initially skeptical, becomes convinced that Mariette's wounds are miraculous after the doctor has examined them; nonetheless, alarmed by the disruption of priory life, she sends Mariette home. Since the reader never doubts the authenticity of Mariette's experience, the only suspense element is the priory's response to it. But what Hansen has achieved, through his immaculate narration and (in the Joycean sense) his invisibility, is a notable act of witness.