A new novel by Alice McDermott is always a major literary event in America. The territory that she covers in most of her novels, Catholic America, mainly on the East Coast, from the twenties and thirties to the present, is what she mainly writes about, and she does that as well as anyone alive in the world. And, surprise of surprises in today’s postmodern, cynical, ironically-oriented world, McDermott is a great admirer of those nuns who helped newly arrived Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, in particular. The Ninth Hour, McDermott’s latest offering, is one of the most beautiful novels of the year, and is even dedicated to a nun, Sister Mary Rose, C.I.J.
The novel circles around the life of Annie, a pregnant young woman in Brooklyn, whose despairing husband Jim commits suicide–the ultimate sin in Catholicism (and many other religions, including Judaism), and one of the nuns from the Sisters of the Poor, who reside in a convent (once the house of a rich Brooklyn man) in the neighborhood, Sister St. Saviour, is there helping the shocked Annie through her immediate trials and the birth of her daughter Annie. These nuns are there daily for people in the neighborhood, cleaning apartments, looking in on the sick and poor, helping invalids, doing laundry, and the like–it’s a world we’ve mostly forgotten, and The Church was the bedrock of so many of those early immigrant communities. Because Annie has no income and no way of making a living, the Convent takes her in daily, where she helps work in the Convent laundry, with another nun, whose personality will fully blossom in this gorgeous book. Four nuns and their lives and thoughts and prayers run through the entire novel, and McDermott’s brilliance shines as she creates the characters of these amazing women, who range from the almost mean (Sister Lucy) to the loving and kind (Sister Jeanne). And McDermott lets these women occasionally talk about their early backgrounds, their childhoods and families, which is rarer than rare, as all that’s supposedly left behind upon joining the Order. When Annie’s daughter, Sally, is born, most of the nuns adore her and McDermott lets us see this mothering/nurturing side of the nuns, even in the mean/seemingly cold Sister Lucy.
Eventually, the novel moves us into the early and later childhood/early adulthood of Sally, her original desire to become a nun, which the reader knows will not happen, and we watch as the nuns themselves age, one dies, and one’s eventually being moved to a home for aging nuns. One of McDermott’s greatest strengths as a writer–she’s already once won The National Book Award–is to compress time so that years may pass, skipping irrelevant detail; she finds the highlights, the most important thoughts on all the women in the novel, and sticks to those. This kind of writing can be very effective; Jesmyn Ward, whose new novel is also reviewed this month, does something very similar. And McDermott’s is indeed a world of women, mainly, allowing McDermott an important alternative reading on how women interact and help one another, a feminist theme in contemporary literature in general. And McDermott writes with such clarity and such beautiful prose–not a word choice is wrong, not a convincing detail left out–that the reader floats along on this novel in a kind of reverie of beauty. And part of McDermott’s purpose is to rectify the negative views of nuns and of The Catholic Church itself, I think, by presenting us with four nuns, an almost lost widow and her fascinating daughter, all viewed through the lenses of these nuns’ caring and mostly love. Sin and redemption underly the entire novel, concepts which may seem out of date and/or quaint in today’s world, but not in McDermott’s highly persuasive work.
The Ninth Hour is compelling and magnificent. McDermott is, to my knowledge, the only person writing about such territory, and she does it persuasively, beautifully, and with a clarion call to memory and to so much of what’s been lost in America’s obsession with growth and materialism.