MODERN NOVEL 2 - Book Review - The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Although Alice McDermott is an award winning American author, she had gone under Group 2’s radar until her eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, was chosen for discussion. We all agreed that this was a beautifully written and powerfully affecting story. It was not an easy read as the author doesn’t shy away from the pain, suffering and sinfulness of human beings; she explores death, depression, motherhood, girlhood, religious life, and illness, to name a few of the themes. But we all felt it was a very worthwhile read. The title of the book alludes to the ninth hour of prayer (nones) at 3:00 in the afternoon, but also the hour that Jesus died: a hint to readers that this book does not ignore darkness; instead it is embraced.

Spanning the 20th Century, it is the story of a widow, Annie, and her daughter Sally (who becomes the focus of the story) and the nuns belonging to the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn. These characters and others who feature in the lives of the main protagonists are vividly brought to life.

The reader is drawn into the book by the recounting of the suicide of a young Irish immigrant, Jim, who opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement, while his pregnant wife, Annie, is out running an errand. The Sisters come to Annie’s aid, providing her with employment in the convent laundry, where Sally experiences an unconventional, almost-cloistered childhood.

The book primarily follows Sally’s life, born in a tragic situation, and her heartrending struggles with faith and helping others in her journey to adulthood. It is narrated retrospectively by unidentified descendants of Sally and her husband. We don’t know their gender, or even how many voices we are hearing, nor do we know their ages or their names. This was confusing at times as it was slightly difficult to decipher the relationships of some characters and the time frame which any particular section is placed within. But it ultimately builds to a comprehensive picture of a family tree, one which, without the help of the Sisters, might not have survived. Jim’s suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives and over the decades, even through multiple generations.

Modern Novels Group 2 highly recommends The Ninth Hour. It provided the group with material for a very vibrant discussion.

Celia Harris