Excerpt from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ninth Hour

A Novel

by Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott X
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2018, 256 pages

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Lisa Butts
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The officer glanced over his shoulder, toward the bed, and then took the Sister's elbow. He walked her out to the narrow hall. Now they stood in the kitchen doorway; the arrested tableau: the bitten bread, the dark gravy, the glass of reddish tea on a small wooden table, the chair pushed back (there had been an urgent knock on the door), the newspaper with its crooked lines of black ink.

"He killed himself," the officer whispered, his breath sour, as if in reaction to the situation he was obliged to report. "Turned on the gas. Lucky he didn't take everyone else with him."

Accustomed as she was to breezing into the lives of strangers, Sister accepted the information with only a discreet nod, but in the space of it, in the time it took her merely to turn her cheek and bow her head, her eyes disappeared behind the stiff edge of her bonnet. When she looked up again—her eyes behind the glasses were small and brown and caught the little bit of light the way only a hard surface could, marble or black tin, nothing watery—the truth of the suicide was both acknowledged and put away. She had pried handkerchiefs from the tight fists of young women, opened them to see the blood mixed with phlegm, and then balled them up again, nodding in just such a way. She had breezed into the homes of strangers and seen the bottles in the bin, the poor contents of a cupboard, the bruise in a hidden place, seen as well, once, a pale, thumb-sized infant in a basin filled with blood and, saying nothing at all, had bowed her head and nodded in just such a way.

"What's the girl's name?" she asked.

The officer frowned. "Mc-something. Annie, they called her. Irish extraction," he added. "That's why I thought to call for you."

Sister smiled. Those button eyes had dark depths. "Is that so?" she said. They both knew no one had called for her. She had been on her way home, merely passing by. She dipped her head again, forgiving him his vanity—didn't he say, too, that he'd put out the fire himself? "I'll go to her, then," she said.

As she stepped away she saw the milk-toothed young man, still in his hat, approach the officer. "Hey, O'Neil," the man shouted. No courtesy in him.

Inside the shadowed bedroom, the neighbor woman who stood at the bedside had her eyes elsewhere, on the gloaming at the far side of the cluttered room. She was a stout woman, about forty. No doubt there were children waiting to be put to bed, a husband to be placated. A woman with a family of her own, with troubles of her own, could not be expected to attend to the sorrows of another indefinitely.

The nun only nodded as the two exchanged places. At the door of the room, the woman looked over her shoulder and whispered, "Can I do anything for you, Sister?"

Sister St. Saviour recalled a joke she had once made, when a young nun asked her the same, in the midst of a busy morning. "Yes. Can you go tinkle for me?"

But she said, "We'll be fine." It was what she wanted this Annie Mc-something to hear.

When the woman was gone, Sister reached inside her cloak and took the small basket from under her arm. It was a flimsy thing, woven of unblessed palms, and much worse the wear for being crushed against her body so long. She straightened and reshaped it a bit, catching as she did the green scent that the warmth of her own flesh and the work of her hands could sometimes coax from the dried reeds. She placed the basket on the table beside the bed and untied the money pouch from her belt. It was all coins today, mostly pennies. She placed the pouch in the basket and then sat carefully on the side of the bed, her kidneys aching, her feet throbbing inside her shoes. She looked at the girl's form, the length of her back and the curve of her young hip, her thin legs beneath the wide skirt. Suddenly the girl turned in the bed and threw herself into Sister's lap, weeping.

Excerpted from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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