"The Ninth Hour" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Alice McDermott
Alice McDermott's stunning new novel, "The Ninth Hour," does for contemporary literature what "Call the Midwife" has done for public television. Both recall an earlier era when women in religious orders operated as de facto social service agencies, nursing the sick, clothing the poor and doing whatever they had to do to keep destitute families together.
The novel begins on a somber note. A handsome young Irish immigrant named Jim has killed himself for what appears to be the most capricious of reasons. He was a man, we are told, who believed "that the hours of his life ... belonged to himself alone." Later, darker aspects of his personality will emerge.
In the meantime, his suicide drives the plot forward, casting a shadow over the lives of his widow, Annie, and their unborn daughter, Sally — and requiring a cover-up in their Brooklyn, New York, parish because the Catholic church at the time considered suicide a sin.
Most of the novel's events occur during Sally's childhood and adolescence, but it is narrated by her adult children, who are seeking, many years later, to understand their family's tangled secret history. And though the book begins in a minor chord — "February 3 was a dark and dank day altogether ..." — the story is exhilarating, largely because of McDermott's lyrical language and unforgettable characters.
First and foremost are the nuns of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, who give Annie a job in the convent laundry after Jim's death and help her raise Sally. They are as fierce, funny, complicated and brave as any women in our fictional universe today.
"It would be a different Church if I were running it," declares Sister St. Saviour on her way home from Jim's burial in unconsecrated ground. Nor does Sister Lucy hold back when she spots a pregnant woman pushing a baby carriage down the street. "He might let her catch her breath before starting another child," she harrumphs to Sister Jeanne about the woman's absent husband. "He might think of her health instead of his pleasure."
That woman turns out to be Liz Tierney, who becomes Annie's best friend and whose rambunctious family life and lusty marriage serve as a comic foil to Annie's more sorrowful widowhood. As the novel progresses, their lives become intertwined.
Even though the action rarely strays beyond the convent and the women's homes — in Brooklyn tenements and, later, a tumbledown house on Long Island — McDermott has created a haunting and vivid portrait of an Irish Catholic clan in early 20th century America.