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)

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)

Compass Rose, by John Casey

This 2010 work is a beautiful novel, and just my kind of novel. It became so on the very first page, as the key women of the novel attend a boy’s baseball game. Casey was perhaps comfortable with these women because he was so familiar with them, since they are characters we first met in his novel Spartina, which I so enjoyed and which won the National Book Award in 1989.

And I, too, was comfortable, for I encountered here a family group and their neighbors in a small Rhode Island town who regarded the world and each other with the same generosity and sensitivity with which I regard the world myself. Whether or not Casey was raised a Catholic, and even though there is no element of religion here, there is a sense of values that fully matches my own.

A compass rose is a marking on a compass that helps one orient oneself by showing the cardinal (north, south, etc.) and intermediate bearings of the compass. This novel is called Compass Rose, because the fulcrum of the story is a girl named Rose, as she grows from an infant to a woman heading off to college. This Rose is the illegitimate daughter of Dick, the main character of Spartina who is married to May, and Elsie, with whom he had a tempestuous affair in the first novel.

The title is doubly appropriate, because Dick earns his life at sea, where a compass is so necessary, and his daughter Rose is the character who brings together, who helps orient, the lives of everyone in this book.

While this is a continuation of Spartina, one does not need to have read that work to understand or enjoy this novel. It is entirely self-contained. And because it takes place across 18 years, it develops its own reality, its own frame of reference. Indeed, the events here read not like the plot of a novel but like actual life in this small community. It is primarily the story of Elsie and her daughter; of Elsie’s friend Mary who lives with them and sees the importance of Rose getting close to her father; and of May, Dick’s wife, whose acceptance is needed to bring Rose close to her father.

But there are also other important characters, many of whom are involved in a conflict between the long-time residents of South County and a luxury development at Sawtooth Point that wishes to expand by taking over the home of Dick and May, as well as other local property. The developer, Jack Aldrich, is married to Sally, who is Mary’s sister. Jack is the closest to being the villain of this novel, but he is so intent on doing good in his own terms that everyone finds it difficult to dislike him. The fisherman Dick is not a prominent character, since he is often at sea, nor are his sons Charles and Tom. This is the story of the women, and it is told from their point of view.

If the sea was prominent in Spartina, it is the woods, marshes and salt ponds that provide the natural element in this novel, a setting that stands in for the natural evolution of life, growth, decay, and death. These ponds and woods are beautifully described, and are a haven for Elsie who is a local nature warden.

Elsie has been introduced to this natural world by the elderly Miss Perry, her former teacher and another prominent character. Indeed, in her final days, Miss Perry commissions Elsie to become the conscience of the region, much as she herself was, in face of the proposed takeover by the encroaching Sawtooth Point.

There are many developments in this novel. The first is the bringing together of Rose, Elsie, Mary, May, and Dick. The second is the fate of Miss Perry. The third is the departure of Mary from Elsie’s house and her discovery of love. There are also minor dramatic elements, such as when Charles is injured at sea, when Dick ‘s boat sinks and he needs to be rescued, and when Rose earns the role of lead singer in her high school musical. But overall, from early on, hangs the shadow of the Sawtooth takeover of the property of these longtime residents.

Jack Aldridge, who runs Sawtooth, is an interesting character, complex on one level but mainly a shallow foil when compared to the women of the novel. He has an ambitious dream that he convinces himself will enhance the community, and he plots and maneuvers to have his way. Yet one doubts that Casey intends him as a true villain, based on the fate Jack encounters on the final pages. Indeed, those final pages reverberate with the sympathy Casey has for all his characters, and particularly the women.

The novel winds down with, first, Rose’s performance, and the negative reaction of Elsie, who just does not understand that her daughter has the same independence of spirit her mother had when she challenged convention in her affair with Dick. Slowly, Elsie realizes her own frustrations prompted by both the need to share Rose with others and the expansive maneuvering of Sawtooth Point that threatens everyone who matters to her.

Indeed, there is a final gathering of all the characters, as a resolution to the Sawtooth incursion is achieved. Ironically, or realistically, this resolution reflects the inevitability of human as well as natural evolution. It is another way of saying that we are all involved with each other and must bend to each other’s needs.

Dominique Browning, in her beautiful review in the Times, writes: “This bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations on true north, its own way of tilting into alignment. Like the love affair that is the novel’s magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy, ‘both ferocious, and serene,’ moments that bubble up, collapse, and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place.”

Another reviewer says that this is the second volume of a planned trilogy. Could the final volume revolve around the expansion of Sawtooth Point? I would indeed be interested in a concluding volume, for this work is far superior to anything else by Casey. But we surely cannot wait another 20 years for this 75-year-old author to produce such a work. (June, 2014)