Here’s the gist of my review of “The Ninth Hour”, by Alice McDermott: I loved it and I didn’t want it to end. Keep reading and I’ll tell you why.
Beginning with a suicide on a dismal winter’s day in Catholic/immigrant Brooklyn near the beginning of the 20th century, McDermott completely and vividly captures the time, place and denizens of this moment in the history of New York, the US, and of the Catholic Church.
The novel is narrated by a collective “we”; the children and grandchildren of the main characters. This narrative choice was captivating and thoroughly realistic for me, as I am the great-grandchild of Irish Catholic immigrants whose stories and faith were handed down from generation to generation.
McDermott centers the story around two families and the nuns belonging to the convent of the “Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross”. I became particularly fond of the nun characters as McDermott fully renders each as individuals; sweet Sister Jeanne, stern Sister Lucy, pragmatic Sister Illuminata, and manipulative Sister Saint Savoir who starts the whole story rolling. So often modern literature depicts nuns in a negative light, it was refreshing to meet nun characters who were “real”: neither all good nor all bad, each with their own motivations and beliefs. Sister Jeanne especially focuses her faith on “fairness” and the belief that God will make everything balance in the end, even though in life we see so much unfairness: the good suffer, evil is rewarded. This is a running theme throughout the novel.
McDermott’s neighborhood is filled with details that are but a memory today:
- Milk Men
- Nuns begging for alms and nursing the poor
- Statues covered in purple cloth during Lent
- The certainty of Heaven and Hell
Midway through the novel there is a chapter that takes place on an overnight train ride between New York and Chicago that is both perfect and genius, and the reason why McDermott is an acclaimed author. Her writing puts the reader right on that train with the character Sally, who is going to Chicago with the intention of becoming a nun like the Little Sisters she grew up with (her mother worked in the convent laundry). I could almost hear, smell, taste, and feel, along with Sally on her transformative ride.