In the tour de force opening chapter of “The Ninth Hour,’’ Alice McDermott’s splendid new novel, Irish immigrant and professional failure Jim sends his young wife out shopping and gases himself in his fourth floor apartment. The first sentence sets the scene: a “dark and dank day” with “cold spitting rain” and “a low, steel-gray sky.” In the third paragraph the overcoat Jim rolls lengthwise and lays across the threshold announces his intent. The back story emerges as he completes his preparations: the loss of his job as a trainman because “he liked to refuse time’’ by rebelliously refusing to get up in the morning. It is a loss all the more devastating when he learns from his justifiably angry wife that there is a baby on the way.
Then, leaving Jim in bed with the gas hose from the stove in his mouth, we jump forward to the immediate aftermath of his death, which introduces the book’s major characters and themes: Jim’s widow, Annie; the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who live in the neighborhood convent; loss; faith; redemption; women’s choices; and, in the chapter’s very last paragraph, the baby, Sally, around whom the rest of the novel largely revolves.
Plot is in vogue these days, but while “The Ninth Hour’’ has a girl on a train — teenage Sally on a misbegotten, infernal trip to Chicago — McDermott largely eschews dramatic arcs. Instead, she fluidly pieces together seemingly minor events, gradually unfolding characters and relationships across decades, and gently but firmly wrestling with the issues they face. In so doing, she reminds us of the pleasures of literary fiction and its power to illuminate lives and worlds.
The world of “The Ninth Hour’’ — the 20th-century Irish immigrant experience in Brooklyn and Long Island — will be familiar to McDermott’s many fans, though the centrality of its nuns is something new (American fiction has rarely focused so closely on a community of nuns; Harriet Scott Chessman’s wonderful “The Beauty of Ordinary Things’’ is one of the few such novels that comes to mind).
After Jim dies, the nuns create a comfortable life for Annie and Sally. Rebellious elderly Sister St. Saviour, who serendipitously happens by Annie’s building on the afternoon of Jim’s death, takes immediate charge of the situation; her last act before her own passing is to arrange a job for Annie in the convent’s laundry. There she apprentices with the formidable, if secretly tender, Sister Illuminata, mistress of all things clean and cleansing, including the harshest of chemicals.
Stern and efficient Sister Lucy introduces Annie to Mrs. Tierney, a buoyant mother of six, including Patrick, who is determined to marry Sally from the moment he meets her as a toddler. She becomes Annie’s best friend and Sally’s refuge. Childlike Sister Jeanne, bubbling over with fun and a childish belief in fairness, is Sally’s surrogate big sister and another friend to Annie, perhaps in the end her very best.
Yet if McDermott shows the power of this collective of women to support each other and their community, she also reveals how the nuns struggle with — and ultimately find their own ways to reconcile themselves to — the limits of their vocation and each other. Annie and Sally, however, are not nuns, and though Sally tries hard to find a calling, both are drawn to a wider world, Annie defiantly, Sally painfully. As she grows older, the loss of her father, the stain of his suicide in the eyes of the church, and the possible inheritance of his depression increasingly influence Sally’s path.
Like James Joyce, whose “Dubliners’’ could serve as “The Ninth Hour’s’’ literary, historical, and ecclesiastical prequel, McDermott is a virtuoso of language and image, allusion and reflection, reference and symbol. She is not afraid to take that virtuosity to the edge of overkill, whether in the purifying laundry, with its “clear and certain restoration of order: fresh linens folded, stains gone, tears mended,” or on Sally’s “hellish train,” where her Boschian companions are “vulgar, unkempt, ungrateful . . . distorted . . . hollow-eyed . . . yellow-skinned . . . murderous.”
The novel’s title comes from the Nones, the midafternoon Catholic prayer traditionally recited nine hours after dawn. Midafternoon is a crucial time in “The Ninth Hour’’: It’s when Jim kills himself and when Annie takes a bit of free time while Sally stays with Sister Jeanne, daily events that shape the trajectories of mother and daughter and eventually lead to the novel’s piercing denouement. Vatican II in the 1960s made Nones optional, and “The Ninth Hour’’ ends decades after that event, with Sally’s children searching for family history on their father’s computer and finding the long-ago newspaper article about Jim’s suicide, a transgression that thwarted Sister St. Saviour’s efforts to bury him in consecrated ground. Crafting a title that encapsulates an entire book, McDermott once again demonstrates her expansively attentive literary care and its quiet power.
THE NINTH HOUR
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp., $26Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’