- What: The Ninth Hour
- Who: Alice McDermott
- Pages: 248
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
Writing about religion takes a certain gall (not to mention talent to really nail it). It has such an impact on some people’s lives that it’s hard to capture its enormous weight as well as the life it bears to those who practice it. Alice McDermott doesn’t shy away from this challenge in her novel, The Ninth Hour, another top contender in 2017. She exquisitely hits the aura that religion provides with just the right amount of suspense, weariness, and hope. The foreboding, though, that her writing evokes fails to come to fruition in the plot, which ultimately knocks down some stellar language to three flames.
McDermott’s latest book follows a widow and her daughter after the husband commits suicide in early 20th century Brooklyn. Although she’s left poor and pregnant, Annie is befriended by the local convent, whose nuns give her work and a sense of purpose. While spending her days in the convent basement doing laundry with the perfectionist Sister Illuminata, Annie envelopes her daughter, Sally, in a life of peace, giving, and sacrifice.
Life among the nuns never fully takes away Annie’s anguish left by her husband’s suicide, even if his mortal sin is never discussed, and she yearns for more. As Sally recognizes the holy spirit within herself and begins contemplating a life given unto the Lord, Annie commits her own mortal sin, which the nuns try to avoid without completely denying it. Sin and virtue are the colliding forces in this book, and compromise between them is the greatest challenge. As Sarah Begley remarks in her Time review, “…though several characters commit serious transgressions — at least in the eyes of the church — they are more often motivated by love than hate.”
“Isn’t it funny how we all die at the same time? Always at the end of our lives. Why worry?” — The Ninth Hour
McDermott’s power lies in her words and how they effortlessly flow together. You can feel the spirituality that fills up these women in their own way. Although the nuns all have the same goal of helping the community (while feeling the great burden of doing so), they approach these goals in their own ways. Each nun has a distinct personality, and the dialogue that McDermott writes among them and the thoughts that she exposes showcases these differences.
Sister Illuminata is stern yet gradually opens up to Annie and Sally while she secretly covets their love and affection. Sister Jeanne is kind-hearted, relates better to children than adults, and values her friendships with mother and daughter almost as much as her relationship with God, and Sister Lucy can be stone-cold and all business, though she leaves evidence that this is a breakable facade. Their respective relationships with Annie and Sally give new meaning to the idea of “sisterhood” in the convent.
“History was easy; the past with all loss burned out of it, all sorrow worn out of it — all that was merely personal comfortably removed.” — The Ninth Hour
We can decipher these personalities because of McDermott. J school pounded into my head the “show not tell” principle, and our author here employs it beautifully. But where the book excels in writing, it fails in plot, of which there is little. “Although the plot can be bleak, it offers just enough warmth to nurture hope,” writes Begley. I easily felt a connection with The Ninth Hour’s characters, but I was disjointed from the actual story.
Learning about the characters took up a majority of the book, and once the plot began, it was a little too late for it to be fully fleshed out with only 100 pages to go. But as I learned from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the plot doesn’t fully drive the story; the characters and the writing do half the work. Unfortunately, The Ninth Hour doesn’t bring it all together to really pack a punch, but it’s worth reading if only to admire the author’s powerful prose.
“But love’s a tonic, Michael, not a cure.” — The Ninth Hour