A 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.