BookBrowse Reviews The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Discuss |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Ninth Hour

A Novel

by Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott X
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2018, 256 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts

Buy This Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


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.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Winter Soldier
    The Winter Soldier
    by Daniel Mason
    Imagine the thousands of confounding cases doctors face routinely for which diagnoses are hard to ...
  • Book Jacket: Brother
    Brother
    by David Chariandy
    Brother is the brief, moving account of how a single, tragic moment in time can alter the course of ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Islamic Enlightenment
    by Christopher de Bellaigue
    In this comprehensive and well-researched history, de Bellaigue examines the evolution of Islamic ...
  • Book Jacket: The Spy of Venice
    The Spy of Venice
    by Benet Brandreth
    Benet Brandreth's delightfully diverting historical thriller brings the Bard to vibrant life. ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

A crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Sold on a Monday
    by Kristina McMorris

    An unforgettable novel inspired by a stunning piece of history.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

A rich, spellbinding new novel from the author of The Lake House. On sale Oct 9.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T Turn T S

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.