Friday, February 16, 2018

The Ninth Hour - Alice McDermott

Summary: A magnificent new novel from one of America’s finest writers—a powerfully affecting story spanning the twentieth century of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn.

On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove—to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife—“that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.

We begin deep inside Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century. Decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence. Yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives and over the decades—testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations.

The characters we meet, from Sally, the unborn baby at the beginning of the novel, who becomes the center of the story, to the nuns whose personalities we come to know and love, to the neighborhood families with whose lives they are entwined, are all rendered with extraordinary sympathy and McDermott’s trademark lucidity and intelligence.

Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement by one of the premiere writers at work in America today. (Summary and pic from

My Review:  I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what to say about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. It’s not like I’m trying to formulate a tactful way to say how horrible it was. No. It was a great book, actually. The story itself isn’t super complex either, so it’s not like I’m trying to decide how to formulate a response to a book that just can’t handle a response. No. I think the reason I’ve had such a hard time deciding what to say about this book is because I want to give it the right amount of gravitas without making it sound like it’s the Bible or something.

This novel is quite short actually, but it took me awhile to read because it’s one of those situations where you can tell the book actually means something, and when you read it, it feels heavy. Not I-just-ate-16-pounds-of-turkey-myself-and-I-want-to-die heavy, but more like the kind of thing where you don’t just read it flippantly while also stirring your chicken noodle soup just to get it done. No, the book commanded more respect than that. I can think of a few reasons why this is.
1.      The writing is beautiful. It’s lyrical and measured. McDermott is a talented, experienced author. This is not her first rodeo, and it shows. The writing flows beautifully in a way that isn’t just not-getting-in-the-way, but in a way that makes it feel purposeful. This kind of writing always makes me take pause. I read very fast, but this type of writing forces me to read more carefully as I know the author is choosing to write what she does for a reason, and I don’t want to miss that reason.
2.      The content was heavy. Nuns who devote their lives to take care of the sick and afflicted are no laughing matter. They see situations most of us would never choose to see, and step in when those in need have been abandoned. There was a certain level of respect that the content itself commands. It was sometimes hard to read about these unfortunate situations, and it made me grateful for these women who so willingly gave their lives. It also made me feel a little sheepish when I complain about the minor things I have to deal with as being a mom of five busy (read: completely bonkers) children.
3.      The story came from almost nowhere, and it floated along so gently I almost missed it. I mean, it was a big deal, don’t get me wrong, but the story is gentle as much as it is heavy. In fact, it quite mirrored the nuns whose lives it followed, which is another sign of that talent of McDermott.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, actually, and I think that it is one of those books that is quiet enough and cerebral enough in some aspects (but not cerebral in a confusing sort of way) that it may be overlooked by the casual reader. You, dear blog readers, are probably not that. By the very virtue that you read a book blog I think you probably read more than the average person. So go ahead and give this one a try—it’s beautiful, it’s quiet, but also quite eventful and poignant. It is simple and yet complex in a way that only a few authors can pull off.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some minor language and some alluding to an affair but it is clean.

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