The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott


I have enjoyed two books by this author (Someone and After This), both of which I admired and appreciated.

This one, as I read in a description, begins with a suicide and ends with a possible murder, so the reader is prepared for grimness. The Catholic Church always figures in McDermott’s books whose characters are generally Irish. In this one we see the church in both a good light and in a terrible light.

The suicide of a young man unable to keep his job and overwhelmed by news of his wife’s pregnancy begins the story set in the early Twentieth Century. Sister St. Savior, an elderly nun is passing by and seeing the policemen, does not hesitate to step in and take charge. She tries her best to arrange it so the man can still be buried in consecrated ground, but though she failed in that, everyone accepts her direction gratefully. She and the other nuns show themselves to be dedicated to care of the most needy among the parishioners. Her assurance that she can ignore Church rules is Sister St. Savior’s only apparent sin. In this case she arranges for Annie, the young man’s wife to work in the laundry at the convent.

Annie’s competence and lovely connections to the sisters makes for a good story. Sally, her baby, also brings joy to the sisters. They are happy to care for her while Annie goes out for a bit of time on her own in the afternoons. This occurs during the ninth hour after dawn, a time for prayers and psalm reading in the Catholic day. It turns out that Annie was having a tryst for years with Mr. Costello whose wife was a hopeless and unpleasant invalid cared for by the nuns.

When Sally is in her teens, the nuns encourage her to become a nun; she goes out with one of them on care-taking rounds and encounters Mrs. Costello, the unpleasant invalid wife of her mother’s lover.¬†There is a bit of framing so we know that Sally marries into one of the beautifully drawn Irish families in the parish. The nuns at their worst want Sally to become a nun, or failing that, care for Mrs. Costello, to expiate her mother’s sins. Well, someone has to pay.

Though this was on Maureen Corrigan’s best books of 2017 list, I rate it much lower than the other two books I’ve read by Alice McDermott.

Alice McDermott, The Ninth Hour, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017, 256 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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