Nearly 25 years ago, Ron Hansen’s novel Mariette in Ecstasy made convent life fodder for great literature. Hansen’s exquisite, prose-poetic sentences dressed a scintillating plot: Mariette, a beautiful 17-year-old postulant with the Sisters of the Crucifixion, is warned: “Don’t try to be exceptional; simply be a good nun.” God clearly has other plans, as “blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor.” Her stigmata are scandalous. The nuns reject her.
Hansen’s novel considers what happens when habitual devotion cinctures the heart from accepting wonder and mystery. The Ninth Hour, the newest novel from National Book Award winner Alice McDermott, mines similar territory. Cast largely with nuns and set in the early 20th century, the novel also shares Hansen’s ability to re-create a Catholic atmosphere in which faith suffuses all things. Yet their styles and outcomes are very different. Hansen’s paragraphs are peripatetic, their fragmentation a nod to the intertwining of doubt and belief. McDermott’s prose is smooth and direct, which makes the accumulating turns of the novel all the more shocking.
McDermott has written: “I knew that the questions I most wanted to ask as a novelist were the questions the Church had already given language to. What I was not prepared to discover, or to rediscover, was that they were questions for which the Church also provided answers.” Her fiction has accomplished this, without the droning quality of much devotional literature. The Ninth Hour feels painfully real, the lives of its characters authentically messy. Salvation is just out of their reach.
The novel begins in early February: “Was there a moment of the year better suited for despair?” Jim, a 32-year-old Irish immigrant in Brooklyn, is alone in his apartment. He has convinced his pregnant wife, Annie, “to go out to do her shopping before full darkness [falls].” McDermott methodically traces his movements around the railroad flat, which include reaching behind the stove and removing the gas hose from the tap. The scene is somehow surreal and precise: Jim walks with the hose, reminiscing about Annie, and about how he has recently lost his job. He sits on his bed, takes off his shoes, prays, and then puts the tube to his mouth. He stands again, looks out the window, and “watche[s] two nuns in black cloaks and white wimples, their heads bent together, skim over the gray sidewalk.”
Jim’s suicide starts The Ninth Hour on a dark note, but there’s never another macabre moment in McDermott’s novel. That’s a nod to her worldview, but also to her method. In the next scene, we are introduced to Sister St. Saviour, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor. She is 64 and has seen it all — addiction, injury, and death. As she enters Annie’s apartment and moves past the police, she thinks not of judgment but of empathy: “We’re all feeling it, [she] thought, in this vale of tears: the weight of the low sky and the listless rain and the damp depths of this endless winter.”
But this is her vocation, and her advice to Annie is blunt: “What we must do is to put one foot in front of the other.” For Annie, that means dinner and a place to stay — and, perhaps, a proper Christian burial for her husband, despite his final act. Sister St. Saviour wanted this to “give comfort to his poor wife,” but also “because the power of the Church wanted him kept out and she, who had spent her life in the Church’s service, wanted him in.”
Her optimism is tempered by the realism of other nuns, such as Sister Lucy, who think “all joy was thin ice.” Yet Lucy and the other women have their vocations, and they take in Annie, who is paid $18 a week and fed. Her infant daughter Sally sleeps in a wicker basket “fitted with towels and a pillowslip” while Annie does chores, including “help[ing] Sister Illuminata with the ironing.” Illuminata is “shrill in her demands, unbending in her routine.” McDermott places the women together “in the basement of the convent, amid the dampness and the rising steam, the baby asleep in her crib, the sheets or long johns hung out on the line,” and offers a window into the world of these religious.
They were not born into this life, but they do not speak of the world before the convent: “The white horse-blinder bonnets they wore did more than limit their peripheral vision. They reminded the Sisters to look only at the work at hand.” The focus is on their labors, but emotions seep through. Sister Jeanne, “small and soft-spoken and easily given to laughter or tears,” often watches young Sally in the afternoon. Jeanne makes a “fairy story of sorts out of each of the Mysteries” of the Rosary while the girl falls asleep. In those idle moments, Jeanne thinks of Jim, and how the “madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic.”
Jim’s suicide reverberates throughout the novel, collapsing the expanding years of The Ninth Hour back into the importance of a single moment. The nuns often speak of the fairness of God, how their habitual devotion is buoyed by the hope that the divine tips the scales of human folly toward justice. A wish does not theology make — and a wish certainly does not bend the ecclesial authorities. Jim is refused a funeral Mass. In the thoughts of many of the nuns, and in the judgment of the Church, he has thrown his life away. Annie is left unmoored, her prayers to God left unanswered.
God’s fairness might be complicated, but McDermott is a kind novelist — at least when it comes to giving her characters hope. Annie meets Mr. Costello, a milkman who offers her emotional escape. They are both suffering but share “no mournful tales, then, of her widowhood, of his frail wife.” They spend a year talking with the comfortable distance of pleasant acquaintances, until one day she hands him the key to her apartment, and they both have a decision to make.
At the same time, Sally is growing up, and though she and Annie are growing closer — “more and more like sisters than mother and child,” one woman notes — Sally is drawn to the religious life. She spends recess in church, not playing with the other children. She tries on the habits of the Little Sisters. “Promised to Christ,” Illuminata quips to Annie. “What man accepts a promise from a girl so young?”
Annie is nervous. She doesn’t want to be left alone again. Sally sees the religious life as sweet rebellion, and is coaxed on a bit by the sisters. In the modern world, after all, what could be more countercultural than devoting one’s life to God? In the convent’s basement, Illuminata sings the right tune: “Down here, we do our best to transform what is ugly, soiled, stained, don’t we? We send it back into the world like a resurrected soul. We’re like the priest in his confessional, aren’t we?” The old nun catches herself, but it might be too late. There’s a fine line between the ideal and the real when one is intoxicated with the religious sense.
The Ninth Hour is a novel of questions, but it builds from a concrete statement: We are bound to our wounds from the past. McDermott spends the first half of the novel sufficiently convincing us that the twists and turns and heartbreaks of the second half are not simply plausible but inevitable. The result is a fine novel and, perhaps surprisingly, a rather dark one. A life of devotion is no easy choice; one’s vocation and will are continuously tested. As Jeanne tells Sally, “truth reveals itself.” Sometimes a good novel is needed to remind us that truth is often uncomfortable.
– Mr. Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributor to The Atlantic.