The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
Selecting a book to take on a long flight is sometimes a challenge, but not this year. On my annual late evening flight to the left coast I chose The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott for my in-flight entertainment. A perfect little book that fit easily in my purse and one I knew would keep me absorbed for five hours in the sky.
Alice McDermott has written seven earlier novels, all published to critical acclaim and nominated for The Pulitzer Prize, the Dublin IMPAC Award, and the National Book Award.
With rave reviews by the likes of Mary Gordon and Lily King The Ninth Hour is one of her best. This novel, seemingly simple in detail, by the words of Alice McDermott the people and the place is brought vividly to life.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic neighbourhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, Alice McDermott knows the world she writes about. A world peopled with nuns and priests, widows living in poverty, women raising large families, many without much choice in how their lives are lived. The men are mostly on the periphery, some supportive partners and lovers, others abusive husbands. But, always there are the nuns. The nuns who sometimes find their firm faith tested, and sometimes regretfully find themselves lacking in compassion.
The Ninth Hour opens on a day of tragedy, the death of a young man, leaving Annie, his pregnant widow, in dire need. The nuns of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor come to the rescue, providing care and a later a job for Annie after baby Sally is born. Annie works with the nuns as a laundress, with Sally under the loving and watchful eyes of her mother and most especially the two nuns Sister Illuminata and Sister Jeanne.
Many of these nuns are very clever women, very capable nurses, and very much more worldly and ambitious than one might imagine. The Ninth hour prayers take place around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the time thought to be the hour of Christ’s death, the hour of sacrifice. It is a time of reflection and stillness for some, a time of leisure for others, a time when Annie is sometimes able to leave work and have time for herself, perhaps to go to the shops.
These nuns hold tight the secrets of the neighbourhood. They know of the suicides disguised as accidents, the women beaten, the neglected children. The nuns offer assistance to all, arranging for the services of doctors and undertakers. They nurse those suffering from illness and depression and neglect. They witness infidelity and unconditional love, they make decisions based on faith and may forgo a sacred promise in order to protect the innocent.
Alice McDermott’s novels have been compared to those of writers Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, always with the words so carefully chosen, each sentence so perfectly crafted. The Ninth Hour is an astutely observed novel that explores themes of isolation, loneliness, devotion, forgiveness, redemption, unconditional love, always frank and unsentimental, and sometimes funny.
Alice McDermott says she had planned, with this novel, to move away from the “whole Irish-American Catholic” thing but found, against her will, “that the nuns showed up and took over the damned book. I wrote the story almost against my will. More and more, The Ninth Hour became, for me, a meditation on selflessness and selfishness, and whether that’s a gift or burden to the people around you.”