In “The Ninth Hour,” Alice McDermott takes us back into familiar territory. As in much of her work — including her last novel, “Someone,” and the National Book Award-winning “Charming Billy” — we’re in Irish Catholic Brooklyn. The time is not precisely clear, but milk is still delivered by horse cart, clinical depression is “melancholy,” and helpful nuns are on hand whenever there’s a calamity.
Born in Brooklyn but not raised there, McDermott has said that she grew up hearing stories of the place, which has consequently “always appeared to me as something of an enchanted isle — a fiction, really.” Here she returns the favor, summoning the old neighborhood, as well as the storytelling that has kept it alive.
Told from the first in McDermott’s careful way, observing but with a certain intimacy, the story is set in motion by a suicide that leaves Annie, a pregnant, very young widow, alone in the world, at the mercy of circumstance. And circumstance in her case is merciful, coming in the form of an old nun, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, whose kindly policing of the neighborhood gives new meaning to “religious order.”
Almost at once we encounter the tension that runs through the book, creating suspense of a metaphysical sort. With the Catholic Church as template, each character struggles to balance the physical against the spiritual, the earthly against the heavenly. It’s a contest that will play out explicitly for Sally, Annie’s daughter, who believes herself called to be a Nursing Sister — a belief abetted by some of the nuns who populate her days.
The first nun we meet, Sister St. Saviour, quickly tries to pass off the suicide as an accident so that the poor widow can bury her husband in sacred ground. The next, the young Sister Jeanne, who will be Annie’s lifelong friend and make a terrible sacrifice for her, sees God in the mundane morning: “The pleasant sound of a milk cart, the tinkle of glass and clop of hoofs, the sound of a few chirping songbirds, the call of the distant gulls, of a streetcar down the avenue, a tugboat on the river.” To the reproving Sister Lucy, on the other hand, “all joy was thin ice.”
Finally, Sister Illuminata, who employs Annie in the convent’s basement laundry and jealously mentors Sally, is explicit. “All things mortal bend toward ruin,” she says, and it has always been the devil’s intention “to convince human beings they were no more than animals, never angels.”
Sally’s vocation is tested before it begins; Annie finds unrepentant happiness in sin; and Annie’s delightful friend Liz Tierney, a devout Catholic, is frankly bored by holiness — she is “more moved by the miraculous blood that colored the cheeks of her six children as they fidgeted in the pew than she was by any injunction from the pulpit regarding the watery stuff that flowed from His pierced side for the salvation of men.”
What these people think and do we hear as if from their own depths, and yet, as the opening chapter concludes, the suicidal man is referred to as “our young grandfather.” Soon we are learning about “our father … sitting upright in the high baby carriage,” staring at baby Sally in another carriage and saying to himself, “There’s the girl I’ll marry.” The description of her outfit, however, doesn’t seem right: “a flaw in the memory,” we’re told. Thus we begin to understand how the story has been spun, knitted together from a family’s memories — a fiction, really, but no less of a world, and no less true, for that.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in northern Wisconsin.
The Ninth Hour
By: Alice McDermott.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 247 pages, $26.