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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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Sister St. Saviour put her hand to the girl's dark hair. It was thick, and soft as silk. A thing of luxurious beauty. Sister lifted the heavy knot of it that was coming undone at the nape of her neck and brushed a strand from her cheek.

This much the nun was certain of: the husband had cherished this girl with the beautiful hair. Love was not the trouble. Money, more likely. Alcohol. Madness. The day and time itself: late afternoon in early February, was there a moment of the year better suited for despair? Sister herself had had the very same thought earlier today, during her long hours of begging in the drafty vestibule. We're all feeling it, she'd thought—we being all who passed along the street and in and out of the store, wet-shouldered, stooped, all who saw her and pretended not to, all who scowled and all (though not very many on this dank day) who reached into a pocket or a purse as they approached—we're all feeling it, she'd thought, in this vale of tears: the weight of the low sky and the listless rain and the damp depths of this endless winter, the sour smell of the vestibule, the brimstone breath of the subway, of the copper coins, the cold that slips in behind your spine and hollows you out at the core. Six and a half hours she'd sat begging today, so weighted by the weather and the time of year that she'd been unable to stir herself from her perch to face the daily humiliation of making use of the store's public stalls. And so she had left her chair an hour earlier than usual.

"What we must do," she said at last, "is to put one foot in front of the other." It was her regular introductory phrase. "Have you had your dinner?" she said. The girl shook her head against the nun's thigh. "Are there relations we can call for you?" Again she shook her head. "No one," she whispered. "Just Jim and me." Sister had the impulse to lift the girl's shoulder a bit, take the pressure of it off her own aching bladder, but resisted. She could endure it a little longer. "You'll need a place to stay," she said. "For tonight, anyway."

Now the girl pulled away and raised her face to the dim light. She was neither as young nor as pretty as Sister had imagined. It was a plain, round face, swollen with tears, streaked with wet strands of the lovely hair. "Where will I bury him?" she asked. In her eyes the nun saw the determination—no result of the Sister's admonition, but rather what the woman herself was made of—to put one foot in front of the other. "We've got a plot in Calvary," she said. "We got it when we were married. But the Church will never allow it now."

"Have you got the deed?" she asked, and the girl nodded.

"Where?"

"Upstairs," she said. "In the sideboard."

Gently, Sister touched the girl's cheek. Not as young or as pretty as she had first imagined, but already the face was familiar: the arch of the heavy eyebrows, the slight protrusion of the upper lip, the line of beauty marks along the cheek. Despair had weighted the day. God Himself was helpless against it—Sister St. Saviour believed this. She believed that God held His head in His hands all the while a young man in the apartment above slipped off this gray life—collar and yoke—not for lack of love, but for the utter inability to go on, to climb, once again, out of the depths of a cold February day, a dark and waning afternoon. God wept, she believed this, even as she had gotten off her chair in the lobby of Woolworth's an hour before her usual time, had turned onto the street where there was a fire truck, a dispersing crowd, the lamplight caught in shallow puddles, even as she had climbed the stone steps—footsore and weary and needing a toilet, but going up anyway, although no one had sent for her.

There had been the shadow of the slackened fire hose along the balustrade, like the sloughed skin of a great snake, which should have told her then that the worst was already done.

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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