The Ninth Hour

The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott’s latest novel, radiates a feeling of quietude, stillness, though, in the first pages of this novel, an immense action is unfolding. McDermott fans will find here the usual fluidity of writing as she spans across decades with grace. The Ninth Hour is written with precision, full of small particulars that grapple with big questions. The words unfold calmly, belying the action that they hold. The plot is not full of twists and turns but does have it’s fair share of scandal, especially to the Catholic Church, within whose rules and rituals this novel is framed. There is infidelity here, suicide.

The story begins with a young man taking his own life and in doing so, leaving behind a pregnant widow. When their daughter, Sally, is born, both mother and daughter come to rely heavily on the sisterhood of nuns who helped with mourning, grieving, and pregnancy. The Ninth Hour is mostly Sally’s story, as told by her children, but also, the story of the sisters who raised her. Through details revealed as to who these nuns were before they took their vows, we catch a glimpse of the women beneath the wimples. Despite personality differences and backgrounds, the nuns, as a whole, have a great capacity for dispensing care. McDermott’s quiet strength lies in these intensely observed characters.

As Sally passes through adolescence, she thinks she too will become a nun. Her first test comes on a journey to a convent in Chicago. A train ride reveals to her the most basic of human needs and desires, “a sampling of the ‘others’ she was giving her life to: vulgar, unkempt, ungrateful.”
As she strives to be good, Sally wonders if one person’s penance can guarantee salvation for someone else. This is a question at the root of McDermott’s exploration of family, sin, religion, and the influence of the past. Put aptly by Lily King, in her review in The Washington Post, “There are so many ways to read this beautiful novel: as a Greek tragedy with its narrative chorus and the sins of the fathers; as a Faulknerian tale out to prove once more that the 'past is not even past'; as a gothic tale wrestling with faith, punishment and redemption à la Flannery O’Connor; or as an Irish novel in the tradition of Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, whose sentences, like hers, burn on the page.”