For lovers of good literature, Ursula Hegi, a German-born American citizen who lives in Sag Harbor and an award-winning writer heralded by Oprah, among others, may be an acquired taste.
A faculty member in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA program, Hegi has a dedicated following with those who value her for what she herself once said about her style: “I write fiction as if I were writing poetry.”
In her latest novel, “The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls,” Hegi continues to challenge readers with prose that is elliptical, sensual in detail and often syntactically fragmentary, as in the occasional italicized stream of consciousness that breaks dialogue, one character interrupting the other but both completing the thought. There’s also the oddity of point of view: an omniscient third-person narrator describes what happens at the start, but belatedly a first-person narrator, Sabine, takes over, one of three main women who dominate the story. It’s not always easy to follow.
The book’s structure can also flout expectations. Composed as nine sections that run (not always chronologically) from 1842-1880, some section chapters have titles that become the chapters’ opening line, others not. Some sections have season headings (Fall 1878), others not. Scenes can go on about local lore — sheep, goats, bees, items of dress, food.
Most of the characters are women who seem like figures from old Nordic myths or medieval folk tales; women who revere and respect the North Sea archipelago where they live; women subject to constant childbearing (and its attendant deaths), restrictive religious traditions and a culture that tolerates menfolk who often just abandon them. Set all this proto-feminist courage in a setting that features a travelling local Zirkus, and you may sense a world that Federico Fellini would have loved. (Why do I see the recently deceased Max von Sydow everywhere?)
Although Hegi does not invoke the woman behind the book’s title, there once was a Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297), canonized in 1728, who devoted her life to helping the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and, like her, the unwed young mother. The St. Margaret Home, the sanctuary for the unwed girls in the novel, is a mansion established by a well-off nun who insists on providing her girls with education, art, skills, and compassion.
Hegi distinguishes among a handful of the sisters and daringly gives their 19th Century world a contemporary feel (as in the use of the word “pregnant”). The sisters are a remarkable lot, expressing and acting on sexual desire. They are intelligent, skeptical, tolerant, a living sisterhood as opposed to the black-clad gaggle of Old Women who haunt the village, Nordlund Fates, who gossip, hover, and comment like a Greek Chorus throughout the tale.
“The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls” begins and ends with tragedy — a sudden 100-year Wave that pulls to death the three older children of Lotte and Kalle, leaving only baby Wilhelm, whose distraught mother tries to throw him into the sea, if only it would give her back her other children. Lotte’s husband, a toymaker for the local Zirkus, runs off, but he would have left regardless of the tragedy. In this Nordsee world, for men to stay in domesticity is to risk becoming a statue, a stone.
Young Wilhelm winds up with the St. Margaret sisters, who give him into the loving care of 12-year-old, Tilli, who has just delivered a baby that’s been taken away for adoption. So many deaths of young girls after child birth, so many deaths of newborns. Young Tilli is another of the novel’s three main female characters, along with Lotte and Sabine, not quite up to the academic tasks the sisters lay before her but surprisingly talented on the cello.
Characters, especially the men who work with the Zirkus, tend to have nicknames, such as The Sensational Sebastian, a trapeze artist who loves and leaves young Sabine. The story embraces myths sacred and profane. Biblical tableaux define the scenes of the various Zirkus wagons, and all is superintended by kindly Herr Ludwig, who runs the enterprise with “dignity” and a dedication to provide audiences with a sense of “magic and exhilaration.” The girls, the village, the generations of those who make their living from the land and sea — all love the Zirkus.
In different ways, the girls and women of this hardscrabble world overcome illusion, disappointment, and fantasies, none more powerful than that of the legendary island of Rungholt, which once really existed before disappearing in a storm tide in the 14th Century. Rungholt rules as the theme of Hegi’s book — disaster, resurrection. If arguably not universally engaging, “The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls” nonetheless impresses with its scope and depth of feeling.