BookBrowse Reviews The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

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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
    Sep 2018, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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A powerfully affecting story spanning the twentieth century of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn.

In a pivotal scene in The Ninth Hour, young Sally encounters an increasingly loathsome series of degenerates on an ill-fated train ride across the country. She is beset on all sides by horrors: "Pale, sleeping faces with gaping, distorted mouths, sprawled limbs, a hollow-eyed soldier...a yellow-skinned man folding into himself, gazing forward with a murderous look. A young woman in a jaunty hat, chewing gum ferociously, reading a magazine, picking her nose." The protagonist is traveling from New York to Chicago to join a convent, but is suddenly faced with an existential crisis: Is this the humanity to whom she's meant to devote herself? This theme, of religion as a necessary balm in a world plagued by pain and misery, resonates throughout Alice McDermott's new novel.

In early twentieth century Brooklyn, Sally's mother is employed in the laundry for the Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor (see Beyond the Book). The little girl grows up to idolize the Sisters and, believing it is kismet, travels to Chicago with a letter of introduction to a convent there, but fate intercedes again. When Sally returns home, she is shocked to find her mother involved with a married man, much to the consternation of the bevy of nuns. Meanwhile, on the periphery, we are given glimpses of Sally's future husband, as the two build a friendship over the years.

One of her grown children, speaking from the future, narrates the novel. This allows the story to stretch over several decades, and for McDermott to provide rich characterization, particularly of the nuns. There is Sister Jeanne, who, in the beginning, is a young idealist. She "felt the breath of God warm on her neck," and is a friend to young Sally, explaining complex moral concepts to her. She points out that a child who is denied candy will say that the action is not fair. If even children know what "fair" means, that knowledge must have been given by God at birth. He wants us to know that heaven is our reward for enduring the injustices that are part of life on Earth. Life may not seem fair, but the afterlife will make it so. By the end though, Sister Jeanne is an old woman, certain she has lost God's grace.

Then there is Sister Lucy, a cranky curmudgeon with a dark back story that convinced her, "a woman's life is a blood sacrifice." Potent descriptions effectively demonstrate the power of the seemingly quotidian. "A half piece of bread, well bitten and stained with dark gravy. A glass of tea on the edge of a folded newspaper," these are details of a person's evening meal interrupted by a tragic event. A building in which a fire has recently been extinguished has a "smell of doused peat, of damp stone and swollen wood. Fire, shipwreck, the turned earth of graveyards." While some readers may find the graphic descriptions of the corporeal reality faced by the Nursing Sisters gratuitous, it is an effective means of drawing attention to their mission, which is ministering to God's children, body and soul.

McDermott, a National Book Award winner, excels at the quietly potent story where small moments build into something greater. The Ninth Hour is a novel about grace, family, sacrifice, and duty, how some serve God by serving other people, and how the idea of transcendence makes the earthly world bearable.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in September 2017, and has been updated for the September 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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