The Ninth Hour – Alice McDermott

[De and Fr]

Another side of the convent

(vf) Alice McDermott is an American writer of a large body of work dealing with the lives of the Irish in America and the role of religion. “The Ninth Hour”, her eighth novel, goes as far as to set the story in an Irish Catholic convent in Brooklyn, early in the 20th century.

The title is a reference to the practice of mid-afternoon prayers, but McDermott does not go on to describe the spiritual side of convent life. The nuns in this book come alive through their worldly dealings – Sister Illuminata, the dedicated laundress and empress of the laundry basement; Sister Lucy, nurse moving in and out of poor people’s tenements with factual empathy and lots of bandages and not to forget, Sister Jeanne, the eternal custodian of fallen angels. The book is somehow about them and what it means for them to be a nun.

The book is also about Annie, pregnant with her first child when she became a widow. She is taken in by the sisters and given a job in the convent laundry. Here, we follow Sally, the daughter, growing up and coming of age. Sally is a feisty young girl, surrounded by warmth and love.

McDermott tells their story in great detail. She portrays her characters without sentimentality or pity. However, she describes the sicknesses and griminess of the poor with a lot of compassion and undercuts the Catholic sense of devotion and shame with Annie’s search for sensuality and Sally’s attempts to finding her faith.

A charming rainy Sunday read for the love of humans.

(Picador, 2017, paperback, 247 pages)


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