THE NINTH HOUR, by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 247 pp., $26.
“The Ninth Hour,” Alice McDermott’s superb and masterful new novel, begins with a suicide and culminates in murder. The book’s real thrills, though, are in the feats of its storytelling. McDermott lays out all the pieces at the beginning: In the early years of the 20th century, a 32-year-old man asphyxiates himself in a railroad flat, and two nuns come to the aid of his pregnant widow.
Her baby, Sally, will in time marry a man named Patrick, and Sally and Patrick’s children narrate this novel to extraordinary effect. They put their family’s stories together, returning again and again to the same place, knowing it better and feeling it more deeply each time, as in a prayer or psalm:
“When our father was very old — we were growing old ourselves — he told again the story he had told her that wet night, the story of his grandfather’s funeral.”
The Catholic Church lurks in every McDermott novel. It is the sea in which most of her Irish American characters swim. In “The Ninth Hour” — whose title suggests not only the Midafternoon Prayer but also the time of death of Jesus and of the suicide of Sally’s father — we go directly into the belly of the beast, down to the basement laundry room of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. There the young widow, Annie, has been given a job by the nuns. Amid the “smell of wet wool, bleach, vinegar, turpentine, pine soap, and starch,” Annie and Sisters Illuminata, Jeanne and Lucy raise Sally from birth to adulthood.
Full of visions and forebodings and bargains with God, these nuns puzzle and fret over their two basement mortals, arranging their futures like chess pieces, certain they are setting things to rights as best they can.
Despite their vows, these women are as flawed and carnal as any of McDermott’s characters. Sister Illuminata is physical, nearly sexual, with the laundry, “bending over the wash basin or feeding wet clothes into the cracking wringer, or ironing, ironing — this was the area of her greatest expertise — throwing her whole body into it, elbows and back and hips.” Before she dies, Sister St. Saviour has turned her back on God “the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband.”
One of the most powerful and sublime spirits of “The Ninth Hour” is Red Whelan. He took Patrick’s grandfather’s place as a soldier in the Civil War so that he could continue both his education and the family’s trajectory out of poverty. When Whelan returned to their house missing an arm and a leg, he was brought upstairs and Patrick’s young sister cared for him the rest of his long life. “Is this what Red Whelan threw away an arm and a leg for?” becomes a refrain passed down from generation to generation, as a threat, a prod, a haunting.
There are so many ways to read this beautiful novel: as a Greek tragedy with its narrative chorus and the sins of the fathers; as a Faulknerian tale out to prove once more that the “past is not even past”; as a Gothic tale of wrestling with faith, punishment and redemption a la Flannery O’Connor; or as an Irish novel in the tradition of Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, whose sentences, like hers, burn on the page.
But “The Ninth Hour” is also a love story, told at a languid, desultory pace and fulfilled most satisfyingly at the end. Patrick falls in love with Sally when he looks from his pram into hers, but it isn’t until years later that he woos her — with a story.
Alice McDermott will talk about “The Ninth Hour” on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m., Sacred Heart Academy, 47 Cathedral Ave., Hempstead. For more information: 516-483-7383, sacredheartacademyli.org.