The Ninth Hour: A Novel
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2017, 256 pp.
Reviewed by Susan VanZanten
In “These Short Dark Days,” the first chapter of Alice McDermott’s new novel, The Ninth Hour, a despondent Irish motorman kills himself one bleak midwinter afternoon while his pregnant wife is out shopping. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, who minister to the impoverished Irish immigrant community in turn-of-the century Brooklyn, take the stunned young widow Annie under their wing, giving her a job working in the convent laundry and helping to raise her daughter, Sally. When the initially omniscient narrative voice suddenly refers to “our father,” we realize that we are hearing a family history that emerges through oft told tales, a history that includes the religious “sisters” in the family and that reveals the quietly heroic life of Catholic women, both religious and lay. While this is Annie’s and Sally’s story, it also the story of the obscure and lowly Nursing Sisters.
Who would have thought that a novel about Irish nuns would have been so deeply engrossing, so theological rich, for a Protestant reader like myself? McDermott, a previous National Book Award winner, has long put her lyrical lens on the Brooklyn Irish community. Without succumbing either to sentimentality or to judgment, McDermott clearly depicts the demanding physical labor and odiferous reality of tending to the sick, elderly, and dying. The sisters never falter from strict moral accounting, but they also challenge male church authority in the name of compassion and understanding. Sister St. Saviour, the fierce dour aging nun who rescues Annie, almost circumvents the church hierarchy in order to have Annie’s husband, Jim, buried in the church plot that he had purchased. But when a newspaper prints the story of Jim’s suicide, the sister’s plan is thwarted, and she angrily tells Annie, “It would be a different Church if I were running it.” Each of the vividly drawn nuns defies in some way the Church rules and city regulations that disproportionately punish “Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.”
When the lonely Annie falls in love with Mr. Costello, whose invalid wife has lost a leg and her mental acuity to a vicious dog bite, the vivacious young Sister Jeanne observes but says nothing. She fears for Annie’s soul, though, and when Annie’s daughter Sally mistakenly decides she has a vocation to become a Nursing Sister, Sister Jeanne tells the resistant Annie to allow Sally to become a postulant. Annie’s loss of Sally and her daughter’s potential sacrificial acts as a nun, Sister Jeanne reasons, may atone for Annie’s sin, may save Annie’s soul.
The theological center of the novel highlights suffering: its harsh physical reality, its demand for redress, and its ultimate purpose. In canonical terms, the ninth hour is three in the afternoon: the third time of prayer observed in the convent. Jesus died on the cross in the ninth hour, according to all three of the Synoptic Gospels, in the midst of a strange darkness that settled upon the earth. The ninth hour thus commemorates suffering, death, and sacrifice; in early Jewish practice, the ninth hour was a regular time of prayer and the hour of afternoon sacrifice. But the ninth hour is also one of redemption and healing as Jesus’s death frees humanity from sin, a meaning suggested in the post-Resurrection account in Acts 3 of Peter healing a crippled beggar in the ninth hour. In a chapter called “Stabat Mater,” the anguish of Sally’s discovery of her mother and Mr. Costello’s affair is linked with the medieval chant commemorating the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion.
Sister Jeanne believes that “the madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic.” All human loss, she affirms, will ultimately be restored. One doesn’t need to be a brilliant theologian to recognize this, she argues, for even the simplest child will protest against unfairness. “God put the knowledge of fairness into you,” she tells the young Sally and, later, as a feeble old woman, Sally’s children. Nonetheless the world requires “love applied to suffering like a clean cloth to a seeping wound,” which is the charism of the Nursing Sisters. Sacrificial suffering offered up out of love and compassion helps to save others. Sally moves out of her mother’s apartment upon discovering the affair, but she also chooses to nurse the grotesque Mrs. Costello as a way of doing penance for her mother, whom “she loved . . . above all else.” The most extreme and unexpected sacrifice, however, is offered by Sister Jeanne, who gives up her hope of heaven in order to bring Annie joy. That revelation comes in the novel’s final chapter, “Endless Length of Days,” whose title belies Sister Jeanne’s belief that she is damned for her act and reveals the ultimate antidote to the “short dark days” of the novel’s opening.
“Truth reveals itself,” Sister Jeanne has insisted, as she tells Sally’s children the story of how Jeanne Jugan founded the Little Sisters of the Poor in nineteenth-century France, only to have a priest take credit for the act. Eventually, after Jugan’s death, she is formally recognized by the church as the founder of the order. “Truth finds the light,” Sister Jeanne insists. “It’s really quite amazing. God wants us to know the truth in all things . . . big or small, because that’s how we’ll know him.” The Ninth Hour reveals the truth of Irish immigrant life, of the faithful contributions of the Nursing Sisters, and of the enduring love of mothers and daughters. History, McDermott writes, “was easy: the past with all loss burned out of it, all sorrow worn out of it–all that was personal comfortably removed.” But storytelling and fiction are hard, revealing the truth of loss, sorrow, and the personal.