Disclaimer: This review contains a few mild spoilers!
For those familiar with the writings and works of Flannery O’Connor, the grotesque and the gruesome are not uncommon. As a famed Catholic writer, O’Connor received both praise and condemnation for her bitingly honest and direct portrayal of human ugliness—or humanity at its worst—alongside the unexpected, unmerited windows of grace that allow everyday miracles to enter the darkness.
Having now read more of her works such as At Weddings and Wakes, I’ve come to the conclusion that contemporary Catholic author Alice McDermott possesses a talent similar to O’Connor’s. Both women do not shy away from the pain, suffering, and sinfulness of human beings. They crack open the pretense of perfection that many would rather cling to than admit their own failings.
The Ninth Hour
In her latest book, The Ninth Hour, McDermott explores death, motherhood, girlhood, religious life, and illness, to name a few themes. In other words, she writes about life. And for those who live their lives as believers, she examines the inevitable paths of belief, unbelief, sin, redemption, conversion, and doubt that follow as her characters exert free will throughout their lives.
The title of her book alludes to the hour of prayer at 3:00 in the afternoon, but also the hour that Jesus died. This is enough to hint to readers that the book does not ignore darkness. It instead embraces it and still seeks the undercurrent of grace in each holy hour.
The Beginning and the End
Even as someone who was taught by the loving Sisters of Jesus Our Hope and who currently works with Sisters of Christian Charity, nuns seem to have the aura of mystery surrounding them. McDermott’s book largely surrounds the lives of an order of nuns.
In McDermott’s eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, the fictitious Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor are center stage. Much like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, this story takes place in early-twentieth century Brooklyn among Irish Catholic immigrants. In particular, as the book’s summary says:
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.
McDermott’s tale seems to suggest, relentlessly, that the hours of our lives do not belong to us. Our lives are not our own. But our choices? Those are most certainly ours and ours alone.
Sally’s Unconventional Childhood
The Sisters certainly do direct the way forward for this little family: Annie, Jim’s wife, and her unborn daughter, to be named Sally (actually named St. Saviour after the nun who swooped in to support Annie after her husband’s suicide, but died herself shortly after). Sally’s almost-cloistered girlhood is lived mainly in the convent laundry where she entertains and learns from Sister Illuminata, secretly indulgent of Sally but outwardly strict, and Sister Jeanne, young and fun and full of idealism.
Sister St. Saviour, before she dies, urges the sisters to help Annie and her little baby by giving her work in the laundry alongside Sister Illuminata. Although reluctant at first, they agree. As their name suggests, the sisters’ lives are spent serving the ailing and in need. McDermott presents a cast of characters who benefit from the sisters’ services. Yet she unveils the hard, holy, sometimes disgusting work they must do to care for the ill, the dying, and the distressed.
Sally watches all of this unfold as she grows up, surrounded by the religious women and her own early-widowed mother. She herself is charmed by the sisters. In fact, she believes in her own call to join them when she is in high school.
Discovering Human Darkness
As she makes her way from Brooklyn to Chicago to join the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor at their mother house, Sally’s cloistered childhood is cracked open. On the train, she encounters a host of harrowing characters who rip aside the curtain and reveal the gross underbelly of humanity.
There’s the woman sitting next to her who talks to Sally about men (almost absent from the novel, as convents are), sex, and physical pleasure. And a young woman who scams Sally, taking advantage of her kindness. There’s a mother who yells at her poorly-cared-for child, and others.
Faced with these players and her own uncertainty around her vocation, Sally ultimately returns home to Brooklyn, changed and stripped of her naïveté.
Shock and Awe
When Sally returns, however, she meets the greatest shock of all. Despite this, McDermott’s book remains somehow hopeful and in awe of the tiny miracles that slip into our lives. Mistakes and flaws, sinfulness and shame, secrets and fears: McDermott includes them all, but never flaunts them or passes judgement. She simply and poetically presents the persistent hope and love that follow the faithful. She explores the undying human spirit that strives to follow God’s will and fails over and over again along the way.
McDermott’s characters are ordinary people living completely ordinary lives. The sisters, the mothers, the daughters, and the strangers are all there, living and trying to learn, trying to love.
In her signature style, McDermott’s prose paints an honest and sometimes uneasy story of a small family, their community, and the hours that fill up their lives. Sometimes for their own wills and sometimes for God’s.
But it was at this hour, when the sun was a humming gold at the horizon, or a pale peach, or even just, as now, a gray pearl, that she felt the breath of God warm on her neck. It was at this hour that the whole city smelled to her like the inside of a cathedral – damp stone and cold water and candle wax – and the sound of her steps on the sidewalk and over the five cross streets made her think of a priest approaching the altar in shined shoes. Or of a bridegroom, perhaps, out of one of the romances she had read as a girl, all love and anticipation…
Have you read The Ninth Hour yet? What did you think?
Mary Grace Mangano is a high school English teacher in Harlem, New York, having also taught middle school Language Arts and Religion in Chicago. She has written for Verily, Darling Magazine, The Catholic Woman, and other publications. She is passionate about education and social justice, loves writing poetry, running, reading, hiking, and learning new things. You can find out more about her here.
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