The Ninth Hour
When Ms. McDermott’s Charming Billy won the National Book Award, my book group discussed it. I remember enjoying it – feeling a pleasant intimacy in the process.
That was partly why I picked up this author’s new one, The Ninth Hour. The other part was that it was short – and yeah, that sometimes matters, given my listening options. Eight hours of Audible listening is eminently do-able.
I had read the blurb telling what The Ninth Hour is about, but I’m not sure it was entirely accurate. I found the brilliance of this book not to be in the mother and daughter mentioned first in the blurb, but in the nuns we get to know, their work in a deeply Catholic enclave of Brooklyn in the 1900’s, their dedication to the ill and the poor, and the rules they break to do what they feel is right.
Oh, Annie and Sally (the mother and daughter mentioned above) were interesting characters, as were others on the periphery. But the book came alive for me in the vivid portrayal of the nuns – Sister St. Savior, Sister Jeanne, Sister Lucy and Sister Illuminata. Each had her own personality, her own history, her own strengths and faults.
I kept waiting for the plot to sweep me up and whisk me along, but that isn’t what Alice McDermott does. She captures the intricacies of life, sometimes briefly, other times in full force. One of the most brilliant scenes I have ever read in a book was that of Sally’s overnight train ride from New York to Chicago. I was right there in the grittiness with the sounds, smells, tastes, and sights. The personalities of the characters were exact, the portrayal of human frailty painted with a rawness that prickles my skin even now. This, I believe, is Alice McDermott at her best. For this scene alone, The Ninth Hour is worth reading.