Thoughtful, evocative work features Little Sisters

An affectionate portrait of a religious community in mid-20th Century Brooklyn.

Alice McDermott
Bloomsbury Press

When Alice McDermott started writing The Ninth Hour she had no intention of writing a Catholic novel, but then "the nuns showed up and took over the damned book". 

The result, an affectionate portrait of a religious community in mid-20th Century Brooklyn, comes at a time when the Church’s reputation is in freefall and is a welcome reminder of the altruism of many who serve in God’s name.

The story opens with the suicide of Anne’s husband and her being  taken under the wing of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a religious order dedicated to caring for the ill and destitute.

The nuns welcome the grieving,  pregnant widow into their convent and provide her with a job in the convent laundry where she, and later her daughter Sally, spend their days in the company of the wonderfully-named Sister Illuminata and the gentle, diminutive Sister Jeanne.

Unsurprisingly Sally decides to dedicate her life to God and after high school sets off to join the Chicago chapter of the order, only to be so overwhelmed on her arrival by homesickness  she immediately embarks for home.

But rather than the tearful reunion with  Anne she is anticipating, she returns to find her room occupied by a man whose relationship with her mother is obviously longstanding and far from platonic. 

To make matters worse, he is married - his invalid wife is one of the sisters’ charges - and Sally, terrified for her mother’s soul, resorts to desperate measures to atone for both Anne’s sins and her own failure.

The bare bones of the plot sound like the stuff of melodrama but in fact the novel is much more nuanced and complex. There are vivid glimpses of the difficult situations of those under the Little Sisters’ care, and although some of the nuns are crotchety or downright angry at the world, they are far from the bitter, repressed, sadistic figures of popular stereotype.

Proto-feminist in their attitudes, particularly with respect to their views on the thoughtlessness of men who subject their wives to a life of continual pregnancy, their actions are characterised by kindness and a willingness to bend the rules of church and state if necessary to do what is right. This is not to say  religion goes uncriticised, at least implicitly, but McDermott balances its flaws against the selflessness that underlies the Christian mythos and ultimately finds in favour of the latter.

My main criticism of the novel is the way in which Sally’s story is augmented with shards of those from her husband and children, whose narrative voice forms a Greek chorus  I found overly intrusive.

These sections, which introduce thematic parallels of sacrificial substitution and illustrate the legacy of depression bequeathed to Sally by the father she never met, break into the central narrative in a disruptive and at times confusing fashion.

But this is a minor quibble, and overall The Ninth Hour is a thoughtful and evocative work that will satisfy those familiar with McDermott’s writing and newcomers alike.

- Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

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