The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: Praise be

Cover imageA new Alice McDermott is always a treat to be relished. She’s one of those quietly brilliant authors whose work has often seemed underrated to me, rather like Elizabeth Strout before Penguin got their hands on My Name is Lucy Barton and placed her firmly on the literary map. I did spot McDermott’s last novel, Someone, in pleasingly large paperback piles on tables close to the front of several Waterstones so perhaps she’s more appreciated than I thought. If that’s the case, The Ninth Hour should help cement that success. Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, it’s the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide, leaving her pregnant and bereft.

Sacked from his job, Jim seals the couple’s small apartment and douses the pilot light on their cooker. Passing by after a day collecting alms, Sister St Saviour catches sight of the devastation after a neighbour lit a match opening up the apartment. Shrugging off her tiredness, Sister St Saviour slips into gear, coming to the aid of the distraught Annie who is facing a bleak future, made more so by the stigma of Jim’s suicide. By the time Sally is born, Sister St Saviour has died but not before securing Annie a place in the convent’s laundry working alongside Sister Illuminata, the fount of all laundering knowledge. Over the years, Annie becomes accustomed to the nuns’ ways: Sister Lucy’s exacting standards; Sister Illuminata’s ceaseless childhood tales and Sister Jeanne’s playfulness. As Sally grows up she falls in love with the idea of becoming a nun, manufacturing the flimsiest of vocations which a railway trip to a Chicago convent sees off. She returns to find the convent’s milkman sitting at her mother’s kitchen table in an intimacy she suddenly understands. Horrified at the prospect of her mother living in mortal sin, Sally begins a negotiation with God that will lead her into a deep melancholy later in life.

The Ninth Hour bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, all gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour. McDermott frames her novel as a family history, children looking back over the stories their ageing father has told them over the years – from the  moment he saw Sally and thought ‘there’s the girl I’ll marry’ to the man his wealthy grandfather paid as a substitute to fight in the Civil War without whom he wouldn’t exist. With its dedication to Sister Mary Rose and thoughtful exploration of faith it reads like a something of a tribute to convent work, although not without criticism. The Sisters provide a safety net for Brooklyn’s Catholic poor and infirm, smoothly stepping in when sickness strikes and staying the course, some with empathetic pragmatism, others with steely organisational skills and a hefty dose of judgement. The priests, however, are a useless bunch, not prepared to get their hands dirty. Another successful McDermott novel for me, then, throwing a characteristically bright light on what it means to be human.

19 thoughts on “The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: Praise be”

  1. I can’t say that I don’t know McDermott’s name but I have to say that I have never read anything by her. Is this a good place to start or would you recommend something else?

    1. I’d say Charming Billy which is a lovely, wistful book but I think it may be out of print in the UK. Someone is a paperback and is also excellent. I do hope you like her. One of my favourite writers as you may have gathered!

  2. She’s an author I’ve always meant to read. I have one of her books in a box in America: Charming Billy, I think. Thank you for your beautiful review. I know you’ve also reviewed Academy Street by Mary Costello — it seems that would be a similar one?

    1. Get thee too that box! Charming Billy is one of my favourite McDermotts but seems to have gone out of print here. Yes, I’d put Costello in that same elegant pared back prose category. Academy Street is another fine treat.

  3. Not a writer I’ve encountered before, but the premise sounds interesting and the characters quite compelling. It sounds like something of a gentle read, is that your view? Lovely review, as always.

    1. Thank you, Belinda. It is quite gentle, no terrible shocks, but McDermott has a penetrating insight into what make us human and a sharp eye for charactericisation. I hope you’ll like her if you decide to try her.

  4. I still haven’t read anything by her, but I remember you mentioning Charming Billy. I see that she has written quite a few books. What would you suggest after Charming Billy?

    1. It’s a close run thing between Child of My Heart and After This but I’d go with Heart, Naomi. That said which ever of hers you happened on first would be a good place to start! They’re all very fine.

  5. I tend to think of her as a darker Anne Tyler. I’m not sure if I’ve actually read something (if so, long ago, maybe Charming Billy, I’d have to look it up) or if I’ve just heard interviews and collected a few of hers. I’ve the idea that I would enjoy her more if only I did a better job of following through with the reading bit. Also, now reading Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I now wonder if I’ve overlooked some of Tyler’s darkness too. So maybe my ideas about McDermott shouldn’t be shaded any darker after all!

    1. You could say McDermott does darkness with a light touch: nothing is ever laboured in her writing. Charming Billy was the first of hers I read, lyrically melancholic. Their writing’s very different but I can see why you’d compare her to Tyler who I love to think of sitting on her sofa with her mates watching The Wire.

  6. Susan Kavanagh

    I normally wouldn’t comment this late but I think people will be looking at this post because you included Alice McDermott’s Ninth Hour in your proposed Booker long list. As an avid McDermott fan, I have read everything she has written. I love them all and would recommend beginning with At Weddings an Wakes or After This, both of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. I adore them. Her earlier novels are great also, especially That Night. I would include The Ninth Hour with my favorites of McDermott’s novels and would love to see it long listed for the Booker.

    1. Always happy for comments no matter how long after the post, Susan! My particular favourite is Charming Billy, sadly no longer in print here in the UK, but I’ve yet to read anything that I’ve not enjoyed and admired by McDermott. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for The Ninth Hour.

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