A Place Apart
Alice McDermott’s latest novel, The Ninth Hour, starts with a jolt: the suicide of a young husband that threatens to level an entire building. Yet this rash and selfish act initiates a tale that explores radical selflessness, as embodied in the toil of Roman Catholic sisters who nurse the sick in early 20th-century Brooklyn.
“The Ninth Hour took shape out of my own desire to understand selflessness, self-sacrifice, and the human suffering that the selfless seek to address,” says McDermott, a faculty member in The Writing Seminars. The labor performed by her characters, she adds, is measured “not in some single act of heroism, but in the daily, difficult, unending confrontation with the inevitable pain, illness, waste, aging, darkness, and death that comes of being human, and mortal.”
McDermott is the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities. Her fiction has received numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award and American Book Award. Much of her work is set in the landscape of New York Irish Catholicism, but McDermott observes that “geography was never my strong suit, and so I find the landscapes of my novels more thematic than autobiographical. More a place apart—a fictionalized place—than an accurate historical portrait.”
Commonplaces and small moments radiate a startling and transformative intensity in McDermott’s fiction. In The Ninth Hour, a basement laundry in the convent of “The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross” becomes the center of the world for the woman and child abandoned by the novel’s opening tragedy. And in McDermott’s skilled hands, even a laundry list becomes a detailed map of the many avenues of redemptive cleansing:
Sister Illuminata was a wizard with hot iron and starch, with scrub brush and bleach. On four dark shelves in a corner of her basement domain, she kept a laboratory’s worth of vital ingredients: not to mention store-bought Borax and Ivory and bluing agents, but the potions she mixed herself: bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightwear resist fire, brewed coffee to darken the Sisters’ stockings and black tunic, Fels-Naptha water for general washing, Javelle water (washing soda, chloride of lime, boiling water) for restoring limp fabric. She had an encyclopedic understanding of how to treat stains. Tea: Borax and cold water. Ink: milk, salt and lemon juice. Iodine: chloroform. Iron rust: hydrochloric acid. Mucus: ammonia and soap. Mucus tinged with blood (which she always greeted with a sign of the cross): salt and cold water.
Placing the laundry at the center of the novel “furthered the implication that the work of the nuns, the daily work, did indeed go unseen,” says McDermott, “and that it was an underground effort to restore order, to refresh and renew, endlessly. But, for the widow, it also invokes a sense of being buried alive by the suicide of her husband.”
The Ninth Hour draws vivid portraits of the women who perform that unseen work. Often, artists have caricatured or sentimentalized the lives of nuns, but McDermott depicts them as vibrant and flawed individuals with tangible joys, fears, and prejudices—as well as a keen sense of the possibilities and challenges of doing God’s work in an imperfect world.
“Much as I appreciate that readers find the nuns in this novel surprisingly individualized,” she says, “I’ve come to wonder that these women have ever been depicted as otherwise.”
McDermott researched the histories of many religious orders to create her own amalgam. “What was astonishing for me was the incredible variety of women who founded and joined these orders, and the tremendous accomplishments of these entirely women-run institutions,” she says. “[Nuns] started schools, universities, and hospitals. They appeared on battlefields, in prisons, among the poorest of the poor, and in every marginalized community, all the while operating within the confines of a male—and often misogynistic—hierarchy, and maintaining an active spiritual life.”
The Ninth Hour is an intensely spiritual book, yet the physicality of the world its protagonists inhabit brims over on every page. “I think all great literature attempts in some way to examine the intersection of creativity and spirituality, to propose, or to deny, or simply to posit the possibility of grace,” says McDermott. “The best writers can do it in all kinds of subversive, subtle, and surprising ways. I’m not that clever, and so the Catholicism that formed, in many ways, my first encounters with literature (the Gospels) and poetry (the prayers), with the language of hope, and the rituals of daily life, keeps finding its way into the stories I write whether I want it to or not.”
McDermott says the quest to create better stories from these rich materials is what spurs her on as a writer. “It’s not my faith as a Catholic that keeps me at this writing thing,” she says. “It’s my faith in literature itself: the word, not the Word. It’s difficult to write about anything at all with clarity and power; that’s the wonder and the challenge of the writer’s life. That’s what keeps me trying.”