Alice McDermott's THE NINTH HOUR and her magic mirror

I recently read Alice McDermott’s brilliant book, THE NINTH HOUR, about which NPR said:

The Ninth Hour begins with a suicide. The aftermath is handled with indisputable authority by a nun who works with the sick and poor, Sister St. Saviour, who arranges both a funeral for the dead man and a future for his pregnant widow, Annie. The young woman begins working in the laundry at the local convent where her daughter Sally spends much of her childhood. As Sally becomes steeped in the world of the nuns, her mother enters into a secret life beyond the convent. Alice McDermott carefully builds a world and a story that leads to an act of love so unexpected it will leave you lingering over the final page, wondering how she pulled it off.”

When I posted I’d finished it on Goodreads, I was surprised to find a number of people saying how much they didn’t like it, and how depressing it was.


I suppose I understand the reaction. Set in the early 20th century, amidst a poor Irish-American Catholic immigrant community, the book opens with a suicide, a man who kills himself even though he is recently married with a child on the way. Not an opening that promises yucks. A passing nun steps in to help, and so begins a tale that entwines the lives of the two groups: sisters and those they serve.

And I do mean serve. These nuns are the working brigade of the Catholic church, as it seems they always are. They are the ones who clean up the vomit and blood, who make sure widows have work and children are cared for, who wash the soiled sheets of the ill and put the kettle on for endless cups of tea. They’re funny. Some of them are angry. Some are weary. Some dissatisfied. Some come close to despair. In spite of these emotions, they work for the love of the God to whom they are dedicated. They toil, they soothe and heal and help where they are most needed. They are beautifully portrayed as complicated and messy striving humans, as are all of McDermott’s characters.

It is in that complication and mess that the problem exists for some readers, I suspect, which becomes a metaphor for the larger problem that exists among us. I admit to cringing at descriptions of amputated limbs, of chamber pots, of desiccated flesh, of bodily odors and fluids, of elderly genitals exposed. I winced at the vulgarity and crudeness of ordinary humans, at their deviousness and stupidity.

Which is, surely, the point. McDermott is holding a mirror up to the reader, a mirror that demands we face up to our own willingness to hold as holy, as worth of loving (in the verb sense), not only the beautiful, the moral, those with whom we agree, but all the ugly, flaccid, bloated, immoral, blankly stupid and cruel of our kind. More than that, possibly, she may be asking us to find ourselves among the scruffy horde.

Are we, like the nuns, sometimes envious? Sometimes harsh, sometimes unwilling, even as we are grudgingly polite to our neighbors, who believe things we KNOW are idiotic, to our neighbors who leave couches and beer-bottles on the lawn, or who flaunt their new Porsche?  Are we capable, or even willing, to caring for the ‘deplorables’, the snowflakes, the parent who has abused us and now needs help to the toilet, the person who calls us names on social media?

There has been talk recently of a possible civil war in the country where I live. I can’t imagine that, I say, but then I see comments on social media calling for violence against the ‘other’, whomever that may be. The great benefit of a book like THE NINTH HOUR, if we read it with an open heart, is that we see not only ourselves in the other, but the other in ourselves, and that, surely, changes everything. Try it. Read the book.



Leave a Comment