cover image The Ninth Hour

The Ninth Hour

Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-28014-7

National Book Award winner McDermott (Someone) delivers an immense, brilliant novel about the limits of faith, the power of sacrifice, and the cost of forgiveness. Set in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, the story begins in tragedy as young and pregnant Annie, an Irish immigrant, returns home to her shabby tenement apartment to find her 32-year-old husband dead from intentional carbon monoxide poisoning. In order to make money, Annie takes a job doing laundry at the local convent. In turn, the nuns of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor help Annie raise her daughter, Sally, after she is born. As Sally pushes through adolescence, the influence of the strict yet benevolent sisters and the church’s teachings takes hold. At 18, Sally embarks on her own novitiate journey, accompanying Sister Lucy and bubbly Sister Jeanne to the cluttered homes and sickbeds of New York’s most poor and wretched. The novel jumps around in time and spans three generations, exploring the paths of Annie, Sally, and Sally’s children. But it’s the thread that follows Sally’s coming of age and eventual lapse of faith that is the most absorbing. Scenes detailing her benevolent encounters, especially her stint taking care of cantankerous and one-legged Mrs. Costello, are paradoxically grotesque and irresistible. As in her other novels, McDermott exhibits a keen eye for character, especially regarding the nuns (Sister Lucy, who “lived with a small, tight knot of fury at the center of her chest,” is most memorable). (Sept.)