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The Ninth Hour: A Novel Hardcover – September 19, 2017
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“McDermott has extended her range and deepened it, allowing for more darkness, more generous lashings of the spiritual . . . Vivid and arresting . . . Marvelously evocative.” ―Mary Gordon, The New York Times Book Review
“Beautifully observed, quietly absorbing . . . This enveloping novel, too, is a tonic, if not a cure.” ―Heller McAlpin, NPR
“[T]he precision of a master . . . [A] great novel.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“Stunning… McDermott has created a haunting and vivid portrait of an Irish Catholic clan in early 20th century America.” ―The Associated Press
“Brilliant… perhaps her finest work to date.” ―Michael Magras, The Houston Chronicle
“A remarkable snapshot of early 20th-century Irish-Catholic Brooklyn.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“[B]eautifully crafted . . . McDermott illuminates everyday scenes with such precise, unadorned descriptions that the reader feels he or she is there, hidden in the background . . . [Everything] is treated with McDermott’s exquisite language, tinged with her signature wit…. [A] novel to savor and to share.” ―Bookpage
“McDermott is a poet of corporeal description . . . it's the way she marries the spirit to the physical world that makes her work transcendent . . . The Ninth Hour is a story with the simple grace of a votive candle in a dark church.” ―Sarah Begley, Time
"In this enveloping, emotionally intricate, suspenseful drama, McDermott lures readers into her latest meticulously rendered Irish American enclave. . . Like Alice Munro, McDermott is profoundly observant and mischievously witty, a sensitive and consummate illuminator of the realization of the self, the ravages of illness and loss, and the radiance of generosity. . . McDermott’s extraordinary precision, compassion, and artistry are entrancing and sublime. . . This is one of literary master McDermott’s most exquisite works." ―Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
“This seamlessly written new work from National Book Award winner McDermott asks how much we owe others, how much we owe ourselves, and, of course, McDermott’s consistent attention to the Catholic faith, how much we owe God . . . In lucid, flowing prose, McDermott weaves her character’ stories to powerful effect. Highly recommended.” ―Library Journal, starred review
“McDermott delivers an immense, brilliant novel about the limits of faith, the power of sacrifice, and the cost of forgiveness . . . 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 . . . are paradoxically grotesque and irresistible . . . McDermott exhibits a keen eye for character." ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Everything that her readers, the National Book Award committee, and the Pulitzer Prize judges love about McDermott’s stories of Irish-Catholic American life is back.” ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. ... A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well.” ―The Millions
“Extraordinary . . . Astonishing . . . Compelling . . . Surely there has never been as strong and clear-eyed a novel about kindness as Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour . . . McDermott is yet again at the height of her formidable powers. This work of art comes to us at a time when, as much as ever, we need a call to compassion.” ―East Hampton Star
“Any good and proper Most-Anticipated-Fiction list of mine will always start with Alice McDermott.” ―The Quivering Pen
“McDermott [is] the master of understated storytelling.” ―Washington Independent Review of Books
Publishers Weekly Top 10 Literary Fiction Picks for Fall 2017
Excerpted in The New Yorker
PRAISE FOR ALICE MCDERMOTT
“McDermott has the soul of an archaeologist―excavating shards of the daily routine, closely examining the cracks and crevices of the human heart.” ―O Magazine
“Exquisite. . . deft. . . filled with so much universal experience, such haunting imagery, such urgent matters of life and death.” ―The New York Times
“Packed with complexity and emotion” ―The Washington Post
“Filled with subtle insights and abundant empathy and grace.” ―USA Today
“Lyrical study of quotidian life. . . McDermott manages to write lyrically in plain language, she is able to find the drama in uninflected experience.” ―Los Angeles Times
“With virtuosic concision, McDermott assembles this swirl of seemingly mundane anecdotes into a powerful examination of love, mortality, and ‘the way of all flesh.’” ―The New Yorker
"The micropoetry elevates the book from a gently story to a multilayered Our Town-like tale.” ―People
“Each slide, each scene, from the ostensibly inconsequential to the clearly momentous, is illuminated with equal care.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“The landscape of memory is a chiaroscuro in motion.” ―Boston Globe
“That’s the spectacular power of McDermott’s writing: Without ever putting on literary airs, she reveals to us what’s distinct about characters who don’t have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special.” ―Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, NPR
“Extraordinary art woven out of ordinary lives.” ―The Quivering Pen
“Gripping and resonant. . . In her own way, she achieves as much as the dazzling, muscular ‘hysterical realists.’ For she manages to break all the basic rules of writing―only quietly.” ―NPR
“Almost without exception, each moment . . . is so thoroughly mined so that every story, nearly every thought it seems, reveals the true complexity of our lives.” ―The Coffin Factory
“[McDermott] is a sublime artist of the quotidian.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“In beautifully understated language and an unerringly nimble free-associative narrative, McDermott weaves such an intimate complex life study that we feel each . . . accumulating loss until they become staggering.” ―Elle
About the Author
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Beginning with a suicide on a dismal winter’s day in Catholic/immigrant Brooklyn near the beginning of the 20th century, McDermott completely and vividly captures the time, place and denizens of this moment in the history of New York, the US, and of the Catholic Church.
The novel is narrated by a collective “we”; the children and grandchildren of the main characters. This narrative choice was captivating and thoroughly realistic for me, as I am the great-grandchild of Irish Catholic immigrants whose stories and faith were handed down from generation to generation.
McDermott centers the story around two families and the nuns belonging to the convent of the “Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross”. I became particularly fond of the nun characters as McDermott fully renders each as individuals; sweet Sister Jeanne, stern Sister Lucy, pragmatic Sister Illuminata, and manipulative Sister Saint Savoir who starts the whole story rolling. So often modern literature depicts nuns in a negative light, it was refreshing to meet nun characters who were “real”: neither all good nor all bad, each with their own motivations and beliefs. Sister Jeanne especially focuses her faith on “fairness” and the belief that God will make everything balance in the end, even though in life we see so much unfairness: the good suffer, evil is rewarded. This is a running theme throughout the novel.
McDermott’s neighborhood is filled with details that are but a memory today:
- Milk Men
- Nuns begging for alms and nursing the poor
- Statues covered in purple cloth during Lent
- The certainty of Heaven and Hell
Midway through the novel there is a chapter that takes place on an overnight train ride between New York and Chicago that is both perfect and genius, and the reason why McDermott is an acclaimed author. Her writing puts the reader right on that train with the character Sally, who is going to Chicago with the intention of becoming a nun like the Little Sisters she grew up with (her mother worked in the convent laundry). I could almost hear, smell, taste, and feel, along with Sally on her transformative ride.
On another level, it's a story about the sacred and the profane, sin and redemption, as reflected through the nuns' actions over the years, from selfless devotion to murder. As they deal with the tragedies and harsh realities that surround those in their care, the sisters inhabit a world where they are both cloistered and street-savvy.
The narration and sometimes elliptical explanations of the characters' connections can be confusing, but McDermott weaves a thoughtful and thought-provoking book.
The story unfolds in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, bouncing around, but in an organized way, between three generations of well-developed and interesting characters. At the center of it all are the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who live in the gritty neighborhood and administer to its needs.
The characters are skillfully filled out but a little packaged, much like the subjects of a Normal Rockwell painting, but with a lot more gravitas. A few are stereotypical but never clichéd. And the main characters ultimately prove to be multi-faceted and fairly complex, giving the story a mystery that is unexpected early on.
It is a book of descriptive storytelling and the author creates scene after scene that instill a down to earth familiarity akin to that created by Jan Karon in the deservedly beloved Mitford series.
The book is written from the feminine perspective but does not play gender favorites. There are many different takes on issues of morality, perhaps best summed up by the Sister Jeanne perspective: “Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded this chaos [the suffering that is life] be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly, be forever unmade.” Life, in the end, is difficult, but ultimately reasoned.
That perspective of morality does, however, lead to some actions and their aftermath, or lack thereof, that stretch the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Or at least mine. My own life hasn’t been harder, but it has been messier.
There is also a strong theme of love and, as in the case of morality, it takes many shapes and forms. All, however, are candidly honest and not romanticized into fantasy. Solid, down to earth, and the kinds of love every reader can relate to.
The story starts very slowly and takes some time to build up steam. To some extent, however, I think that is common to the brand of descriptive narrative employed. By the finish you’re reading along at a brisk trot.
In the end I gave the book a four not because I enjoyed it that much but because fans of this author surely will. The writing is very strong. It didn’t tickle my own literary fancy but that’s okay. It was a good read nonetheless.