The Ninth Hourby Alice McDermott
Reviewed by Sue Ellis
For Readers:Alice McDermott's newest novel, The Ninth Hour, is an easy pick after reading the back jacket. Three of her previous novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
The Ninth Hour is set in Catholic Brooklyn in the early twentieth century. The story opens with the suicide of Jim, an Irish Immigrant fired from his job at the railroad. He urges his pregnant wife to do her shopping early, then turns on the gas in their apartment and blocks its escape by jamming a coat under the door.
Sister St, Savior, making her way home following a weary day of tending an alms basket, encounters the sad scene and takes charge of the grieving widow, Annie. She oversees a quick burial for Jim in the church cemetery before objections can be made, and arranges work for Annie in the laundry of the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor.
When Annie's baby girl, Sally, is born, she is cherished by her mother and the doting nuns, and grows up a carefree and obedient child. Here's an excerpt:
The days in the laundry grew longer for the two women when Sally started school, but when she returned, she brought her mother and the nun tales from what they called the wider world. She could capture her classmates' broken English, or their solid brooklynese, with perfection. She had the pastor's nasally Latin down to a T. She was a good and quiet child in the classroom, polite and shy on the street, but in the basement laundry of the convent, every impulse toward silliness, every outlandish pantomime or adolescent misfiring of elbows and feet, not to mention wickedness, was set free, and utterly indulged by her mother and the nun, provided--they were always reminding her, that she kept her voice low.
Sally decides she'd like to be a nun herself, having helped visit the sick and poor with the nuns on many occasions, but none of that prepares her for the people she meets on the train that carries her to her new assignment, their coarseness and greed. She returns home immediately only to find her mother at home with her lover, a man whose crippled wife Sally has helped care for.
Farrar, Strous and Giroux
The characters are fascinating, likeable mostly, admirable and real. The story is told in part from the persepctive of Annie's grandchildren, so we get a sense of the repercussive results of a family touched by both tragedy and compassion. This author can set a scene authentically and believably, a real bonus for everyone.