The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
This review is going to be difficult to write, because The Ninth Hour is so masterful, so charming, so delightful, it’s going to be hard to do it justice. I want to gush, but gushing is clumsy and knock-kneed, and this book is so opposite-of-that.
Alice McDermott is a National Book Award-winning author, and her latest book starts off with the suicide of a young, soon-to-be-father. He persuades his heavily pregnant wife to set off to the shops before it gets dark, then stops all the gaps under doors and windows with towels, unhooks the gas tube from the oven and brings it into the bedroom, then arranges himself comfortably on the marital bed. You’d expect a book that starts off with such a grim premise to be heavy, but it’s a tribute to the author that it manages, even from page one, to have a lightness of touch.
Set in Brooklyn sometime in the forties or fifties, the book follows the story of the young widow Annie, and her baby Sally, who are taken under the wings (and habits) of the nuns of The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor after Annie’s husband’s body is discovered by Sister St Savior. Feeling sorry for the young widow (and now-single mum), they arrange for her to work in the convent laundry with crotchety Sister Illuminata, while little baby Sally plays at their feet. The years pass by, and Sally grows from baby to toddler to girl to adolescent, under the watchful and utterly loving eye of the nuns. Annie too, finds deep friendship among the nuns and the various inhabitants of their neighbourhood.
There’s something of Ann Patchett in Alice McDermott’s writing, with a touch of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn thrown in. This is a delight from start to finish, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.