REVIEW: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Like most of McDermott’s novels, The Ninth Hour is set in Irish Catholic Brooklyn. This time the story centers around nuns and a young widow.

Annie is newly pregnant when she returns from shopping to find her husband dead of suicide.  The strong and capable Sisters of Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor immediately step in to take care of the mess. They clean and warm the apartment, get Annie safely to a neighbor and try to get the death listed as accidental so Jim may be buried in holy ground.

Annie takes a laundry job at the convent and brings her daughter Sally to work with her. At the prodding of the nuns, she makes friends with another young mother and steps out every afternoon for a little fresh air. Soon her afternoons of fresh air are actually stolen time with a lover, Mr. Costello, who has an incapacitated wife. The compassionate nuns look the other way.

Sally grows up happily amidst the nuns and thinks of joining them, but a trip to a Chicago nunnery quickly dispels that idea and she returns to Brooklyn and marries a childhood friend. It is one of their children that narrates the story.

The Ninth Hour is a heartfelt book with sin acknowledged, but not dwelled on. McDermott chooses to focus on the compassion of the nuns and humanness of the characters rather than any strictness of doctrine. The characters balance their sins against heaven’s rewards and strive to just be good people who do the right thing when they can. They aren’t perfect, but then no one is, and their faith allows them to believe in forgiveness and redemption knowing God’s mercy is greater than they can imagine.

McDermott writes most beautifully about ordinary lives in Irish Catholic Brooklyn. Her The Ninth Hour continues to showcase that gift.


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