For a period in my early 20s I worked as a caregiver to mentally handicapped adults who lived in halfway houses. These extraordinary women and men all required a varying amount of care, supervision and companionship. Often the work felt rewarding and enlivening, but sometimes it could be overwhelmingly upsetting and draining. In those dark moments it felt futile and insignificant. I mention this only because something I think Alice McDermott captures so powerfully in this novel is the sense of ambiguity that comes with the compulsion to “do good” vs the daily physical reality of providing care. The novel follows one family’s involvement with a nunnery in NYC where this band of Sisters regularly go out into the community to collect money for the poor, provide service to those in need and intervene in troubled situations. “The Ninth Hour” primarily follows the life of a girl named Sally born in a tragic situation and her heartrending struggles with faith and helping others in her journey to adulthood.
McDermott has a beguiling way of writing so eloquently about very dark scenes. The opening section is about a man’s suicide, but alongside the cold truth of his actions she imbues her prose with all the desperately conflicted feelings he has as he takes this decisive act. She ends this section in the most fascinating way by revealing the narrator is a collective group of descendants from this man. The novel traces the successive generations that follow this tragic man while also exploring the Sisterhood that assists this family in peril. I found this confusing at some times as it’s slightly difficult to decipher the relationships of some characters and the timeframe which any particular section is placed within. But it ultimately builds to a comprehensive picture of a family tree that could have so easily died out if fate had altered its course and the Sisters hadn’t been there.
The work of the nuns is accompanied by a lot of morally ambiguous situations. Here the dogmas of faith are tested against the real needs of people in a changing society. Some of the nuns follow their own sense of goodness and others stick to the “rules” of religion as have been traditionally practiced. I was struck by the complex way McDermott writes about how faith is uniquely expressed in different individuals. Sister St. Saviour comes across as a quiet pioneer whose sense of justice for women overcomes misogynistic authority: “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations – Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society – that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.” It’s so heartbreaking how she’s portrayed as someone who works tirelessly when she sees people in need even if she’s already physically and mentally exhausted herself. I admire the complexity the author gives to these characters and their faith and shows the personal impact their devoted service has upon them.
It felt like one of the points of this novel is to restore feeling back into the cold branches of a family tree. McDermott states at one point in the narrative that “History was easy: the past with all loss burnt out of it, all sorrow worn out of it – all that was merely personal comfortably removed.” To really know and understand the struggles that Sally endures before producing a family, the story vividly shows her painfully calamitous train journey to become a nun in Chicago and the excruciating service she provides to a bad-tempered disabled woman. I was entranced by her journey and the conflicts she worked through to arrive where she belongs. This is the first time I’ve read Alice McDermott and I’ll be eager to read more.