The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

This tender novel works on two levels. It is the story of a Catholic family, of mother Annie and daughter Sally, as they each seek happiness after the loss of husband and father. It is also the story of an order of Catholic nuns, featuring Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne as they take over from the elderly Sister St. Saviour. And within both stories is an awareness of death, along with a striving for happiness in one’s life.

The emotions that carry this novel belong to the family story, as wife and daughter seek to overcome the disgrace of a suicide. The richness that fills this novel comes from the spiritual life of the nuns, and the sacrifices they make to care for others. These literary qualities join when both the family and the nuns confront death as the inevitable human destiny.

And yet the telling of these two stories does lack cohesion. The action does not flow from one chapter into the next. Instead, each chapter isolates a separate stage in the family story. After a harrowing opening scene of suicide, the narrative settles on the funeral arrangements, with the issue of whether a suicide can be buried in hallowed ground and the reaction of these nuns who are more open-minded then doctrinaire.

Then follow separate chapters that introduce a widow’s love affair, life in the nuns’ laundry room, the pain of a sick and dying woman, then a disillusioning train ride, followed by the funeral of a figure from the past, then a return to the sick invalid. Each chapter is beautifully written, but each is self-contained and could stand on its own as a short story. (One does appear in The New Yorker.) The continuity stems from daughter Sally’s thinking: whether or not she should join these sisters whose dedication to the unfortunate she has been exposed to.

Contributing also to the lack of cohesion are interruptions in the narrative, which suggest we are being told this family story by a character who does not exist in the novel. Every so often, that is, this narrator jumps into the third person narrative, and refers to “my mother, or “my father.” And we realize that this narrator is a child of the daughter Sally. A child who, as I said, never appears. Why is this person present? What is his or her purpose? It is conceivable that Sally, as mother, may have told this figure much of her own thinking, but certainly not that of the nuns or the other characters.

The ending also may be problematic for some. It introduces a death, a death which may be natural, but there is a suggestion that it has been triggered by one of the characters. The author does not say this, but she does leave us with the strong possibility. And it is also in keeping with the human motivations of these characters. The closest the author comes to stating this is when one character talks of heaven. “Out of love, I lost it. Which sounds funny, doesn’t it. You’d think you could only lose heaven out of hate.” And later: “But you’ll pray for me, won’t you…You’ll pray for this lost soul.”

It is the presence of life’s spiritual frame of reference that provides the strength of this novel. The actions of all these characters, even of the nuns, are human actions, but there are consequences to those actions, consequences that originate in the religious convictions that govern the Irish society to which these characters belong. The primary conviction is that the meaning of human life is not limited to the physical world, but is found, more significantly, in the spiritual world. And the conflict between these two worlds is introduced from the start of the novel, when a nun and a bishop debate whether a suicide can be buried in consecrated ground. It is also reflected in the novel’s title, for the ninth hour becomes the time for both the nun’s mid-afternoon prayers and the love affair of a lonely woman.

But what lends this novel its substance is that all its nuns realize that their daily lives are circumscribed by a physical, humanistic world. And that they must adjust their spiritual decisions accordingly. Which means that they lean toward practical considerations. And lean quite far, if one woman’s confession is to be believed.

The order these nuns belong to is The Little Sisters off the Sick Poor. So the richness of the novel also stems from the lives of the poor victims that these nuns encounter. Which highlights both the physical needs the nuns fulfill and the spiritual motives that inspire them. That is, they serve both worlds. And yet there is also that tension between these worlds, illustrated when Sally rejects a spiritual vocation after being confronted by the world of reality on her train ride. As well as, later, when both she and a nun conclude that enabling love, enabling a physical affair, is justified, even though it would deny them their spiritual destiny.

It is this coexistence between the physical world and the spiritual world that characterizes much of McDermott’s work. But with this probing of the nun’s world, perhaps an inevitable extension of the Irish culture, she has raised her explorations to a new level. She has kept the family environment, with its Irish culture, and here the Irish shame of suicide, but also made a family’s spiritual considerations more tangible by introducing the nun’s worldly perspective.

If only she had offered smoother transitions between the two worlds. Had told the story through a decade or two of one generation (Sally’s), instead of through two generations, with the suggestion of a third. Had made her witness of her mother’s love affair even more central to the conflict between the two worlds. (Or would that have veered too much toward melodrama?) Because I see a richness in the many considerations that Sally was faced with, especially the wall of innocence both the nuns and her mother had built around this young girl.

Overall, this does not reach the heights of McDermott’s better novels. But I do give her credit for exploring more deeply its spiritual dimension, not always an easy assignment. (March, 2018)

Someone, by Alice McDermott

I should get tired of writing the phrase: This is a beautiful novel. But I cannot, not when it is a beautiful novel. Even if this 2013 work is not structured, as I prefer, chronologically. Even if it is not concerned with story. Even if it is concerned with just one person, its narrator, Marie, from when she is seven years old to when she is enduring the infirmities of old age.

But even more, I believe, this novel is concerned with life. As personified by Marie. Which is probably the reason for the title: Someone. Marie is someone, someone McDermott makes us concerned about. Not for what she is, as much as for what she experiences. Which is life.

Yes, she is plain and nearsighted. And when jilted by a supposed boy friend, she is near despair. ”Who’s going to love me?” she asks. And her kind brother Gabe answers: “Someone. Someone will.” And, yes, this gives the novel its title; but it is meant to do more, I believe. It is meant to give Marie a more generic life, to make her represent more than herself, to make her represent everyone. To make her represent the life that everyone experiences.

And this is why McDermott does not tell Marie’s story directly. Why she jumps around chronologically. We are not to focus on Marie. We are to focus on the life she lives. As representative of the life we all live.

Not that it is easy to get used to a structure in which childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and old age do not appear in sequence. That is, we experience her first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, his loss of his vocation, and his breakdown; her parents’ deaths; her “temporary” ten-year job in a funeral home; life at home with squabbling children; and the changing world of Irish-Americans. Marie labels everyone as fools for thinking anyone cares about us in a world in which we are victims of suffering, injustice, and mortality. But the novel suggests many do care. And the life of fools that we endure is a condition of this life that the novel celebrates.

Because Marie’s story is not told in sequence, we read of her pregnancy before her marriage, of her grown children before she gives birth. As a result, we read to learn not what will happen next to Marie, but to learn how what has already happened grew out of her earlier life. Thus, there is a different kind of suspense, based on a different kind of reader curiosity.

As with life, this novel reaches no conclusion. The ending recalls the opening pages, but what really happens when Marie recalls the death of a childhood friend from a fall on cellar stairs, as she herself climbs down her stairs in the dark? Is it that she has just helped to protect her brother Gabe’s life? And now: “We’ll see what happens next.” Who knows? Just as I was not sure why her beloved brother left the priesthood and later was confined to an asylum. Yes, there were hints and rumors, but, as in life, there are no sure answers; and McDermott offers an anecdote by husband Tom to stress this.

It also happens that Gabe is the most interesting character here, undoubtedly because he changes and yet there is no explanation for those changes. Because of the author’s skill and compassion, however, we feel not frustration as a reader but a greater understanding of Marie’s own concern.

One can only conclude that this uncertainty is part of the ordinary life that the author is depicting here. For that ordinariness is at the heart of this novel. Indeed nothing extraordinary occurs here—nothing besides death, childbirth, madness, and love—that would make Marie’s life different from any other. And the key to conveying that ordinariness is a prose style that is simple, that itself is ordinary, that focuses on the presumably insignificant details, on intimate family scenes, on familiarity with both physical and emotional pain, and, overall, on an empathy for the human condition.

Kevin Spinale sums this up in America. “It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie.…Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.”

And Roxanna Robinson adds in the Washington Post: “Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief. Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.”

This is not a novel that required research, or a special knowledge. It simply required a way of life to have been lived, and then to capture it in a simple prose that matches its subject matter. It required a middle-class Catholic life lived among a changing urban society. And an author who understands, identifies with, and sympathizes with that way of life.

Interestingly, this is a novel written out of a Catholic sensibility but not one in which Catholicism plays a major role. Its heroine Marie, indeed, rebels against her faith’s restrictions, just as she does against the conventional wisdom of others, including her parents and her doctors. Even when her brother Gabe leaves the priesthood, it is accepted rather than explored.

In an interview, McDermott calls herself a contrarian. One wonders how much her Catholicism has contributed to that sense of herself. For the Catholic way of life is not only separate from the mainstream of traditional American society, it is also out of the mainstream of the traditional literary world. Catholics, with their own values, look at life differently. And surely this novel looks at an American life differently from most current novels. I refer not to the structure but to the ordinary life shown here in that structure.

To sum up, may this not be the capstone of McDermott’s career. But it could be. For it simplifies a novel down to its basics. It is about one life, and yet about all lives. It focuses on the ordinary, but the ordinary that encompasses all our lives. It is about the limitations to our knowledge of others, rather than the usual omnipotent delineation of others by the author. And it is about writing simply, without the flourishes of an author calling attention to herself. (July, 2014)