The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp.
Alice McDermott occupies a subculture in American literature, addressing the immigrant experience writ small – humble lives that would go unnoticed forever if a canny chronicler had not come along and found the epic in the ordinary, found Homer in the homespun. Her newest novel, The Ninth Hour, locates itself in Brooklyn at the start of the twentieth century, in a convent, where an order of nursing sisters occupies a world of scars and discharges, mucus, saliva, blood, filth, and all manner of human torment. Their charge is to “enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms.” It is a harsh life in which steadfastness trumps exhilaration: “What we must do is to put one foot in front of the other,” says one of the sisters.
If Phillip Roth hadn’t already claimed it, McDermott’s eighth book could just as easily have been titled “The Human Stain.”
The nuns lead lives as constrictive as the garments that encase them, consoled by their sorority and by their rituals: especially the daily prayers at set hours. The book’s title pays obeisance to the ninth hour or nones in Latin: prayers offered at three p.m. -- the most sacred moment of the day when Christ was said to die on the cross.
The novel begins when a subway worker, still young, chronically unhappy, recently fired from his job, kills himself, almost blowing up his apartment building in the process, and leaving his pregnant wife, Annie, behind. Compounding the horror is a story about his death in the paper with the headline “Suicide Endangers Others,” causing one of the many nuns who rally to save Annie and her daughter Sally to make the comment, “The New York Times has a big mouth.” The nuns had hoped to hide the nature of his demise so that he could at least have a funeral Mass said in his name and occupy the gravesite he and his wife had prepurchased, but the rules of the Catholic Church regarding suicides forbade both.
Annie is given work in the convent’s basement laundry where her daughter, Sally, accompanies her. Annie spends her days washing clothes and folding linens, creating spotless piles doomed to desecration as soon as they are reunited with the humans who soiled them in the first place.
The laundry is itself a miracle of chemistry whose overseer keeps “a laboratory’s worth of vital ingredients: not merely the store-bought Borax and Ivory and bluing agents, but the potions she mixed herself: bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightwear resist fire, brewed coffee to darkening the sisters’ stockings and black tunics. She had an encyclopedic understanding of how to treat stains. Tea: Borax and cold water. Ink: milk, salt, and lemon juice . . .”
The child, Sally, is compliant yet also merry, almost subversively so, sometimes taking donated garments and playing dress up, pretending to be any number of known figures in their small universe, mocking them with delicious impersonations. She is a bit of a dreamer; the nuns catch on, before she does, to her mother’s affair with a married man, whose wife is an invalid burdened with a querulous personality that makes her more obnoxious than pitiable. (Think Zeena from Ethan Frome; think Mrs. Rochester.)
Sister Lucy, who never sees the silver lining, for whom “all joy is thin ice,” thinks she understands the source of the marital friction: “Even a good wife might transform herself into a witch or a lush or, worse, an infant or an invalid, in order to keep her very good husband out of her bed.” Yet another nun, seeing the world differently, says simply about Annie and her lover: “There is a hunger.”
The nuns come in for some long overdue praise in this book. Rather than the cartoonish portrait of scowling, ruler-wielding, Catechism-inculcating, dried up harridans, we are told by one character that the sisters “do more good in this world than any lazy parish priest…pampered momma’s boys compared to these holy women. . . It’s the nuns who keep things running.”
Depression is a theme here, undiagnosed, as it was in McDermott’s masterpiece Charming Billy, in which the main character self-medicated with alcohol. In both books, it is the choice of narrator that feels like a breath-taking leap. In Charming Billy, an eyewitness to many of the events tells his version to a daughter who was born after most of the action.
In The Ninth Hour the narrator is a plural entity, also born after the scenes the book describes. We don’t know gender, or even how many voices we are hearing, nor do we know their ages or their names. We do know they are the descendants of Annie and her husband, and that they are now telling the story of their ancestors with the clarity that only time can provide. With perspective, settled history takes over and the story attains an agreed-upon arc and facts outweigh fury.
Two scenes in particular stand out for their stunning drama: a trip by train from New York to Chicago when Sally, now a young woman, believes she will join a holy order in that city, only to be dissuaded by the nightmare assortment of fellow passengers who she believes are put in her path to test her vocation, who show her the “dirty truth of the world.” She heads home right away on the overnight train, fleeing the underworld as soon as she can “returning, like some Odysseus, much older and much changed.”
Someone once said there is no such thing as a great work of fiction without a crime at its center, and the other pivotal moment is a murder that happens more in the heart than in reality.
The scene has the harrowing inevitability of a dream sequence: borderless and frantic. Sally conceives of a sure-fire way to eliminate the woman who is not only an impediment to her mother’s happiness on earth but also, as long as the relationship continues, a roadblock to redemption on the other side. Sally is certain that her mother’s affair with Mr. Costello, the milkman married to the invalid, means that Annie lives in mortal sin and that she “skimmed the precipice of perdition with every step she took, every breath.” Sally’s plan is to transfer the sin of murder to her while eliminating her mother’s sin of adultery: she will poison the frail woman’s tea. In fact, before Sally can effectively administer her potion Mrs. Costello appears to aspirate on a bit of food: in case you miss the point of the whole book (that we live in a fallen creation) flecks of apple play a big role here. The ambiguity only heightens the sense of doom and leads the reader to embrace an image of its opposite for Sally, now free to surrender to the impulse toward light, toward life on-going, toward what Sally’s future mother-in-law, a bustling mother of six, represents: “holiness bored her… She liked chaos, busyness, bustling. She liked a household strewn with clothes and dust and magazines and books, jump ropes, baseball bats, milk bottles. She liked the sigh and smell of overflowing ashtrays, of a man who’s had a few drinks, of tabletops crowded with cloudy glasses. She loved falling into an unmade bed at the end of the long day, falling in beside her snoring husband ---with maybe a child or two snagged in the covers ----and never reaching because sleep overtook her, the part of the Hail Mary that said: Now and at the hour of our death.”
McDermott writes with a chastised tongue: there is never a noisy, “voice-y,” look-at-me word in this book; in fact, the opposite. She has a fondness for simple adjectives used over and over (dark, dank, damp, sour, pale, cold, gray, mad, all minor chords in the English language., yet here though, through repetition, they attain the steady force of a metronome, and take on the quality of distant chimes or holy bells. Of all those words, the author’s clear favorite is “mad” whose meaning in her hands has astonishing elasticity: Sister St. Savior --- nearing the end of her life ---had a “mad heart. Mad for mercy, perhaps, mad for her own authority in things --- a trait Annie had come to admire, but mad nonetheless.”
We learn from these choral voices that Sally, like her father is burdened by depression but for her it was not a death sentence, more a dependent clause in a life that became full and long. One of the phrases the chorus applies to Sally is “our mother, when she was well …” ---- a benediction for her as well as the reader.
One of McDermott’s previous novels, After This, ends with a quote, “It’s a gift, then,” which is how a reader feels after entering yet another work of hers, that a gift has been tendered, a mad one at that.
Madeleine Blais is Professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she serves as Honors Director in Journalism. She won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing while on the staff of the Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine and she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
Her most recent book is To the New Owners: A Martha's Vineyard Memoir. She is also the author of The Heart is an Instrument, a collection of journalism, and In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle, which was chosen as a finalist in the category of general nonfiction by the National Book Critics’ Circle. Her memoir Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family was selected by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) for its annual “Ken” book award and was also chosen as Massachusetts Book of the Year.
For twenty years Blais has been Director of the Williston Writer’s Workshop Series at the Williston Northampton School, bringing in prominent writers to present to students and the public four times a year. She is also a faculty mentor in the Goucher College low-residency Masters of Fine Arts in Nonfiction program in Baltimore.