“A woman’s life is a blood sacrifice,” Sr. Lucy tells Sally, the teenager shadowing her as she goes about her work in Alice McDermott’s new novel The Ninth Hour. It’s not a complaint: the suffering of women is a doctrinal given, “our inheritance from Eve.” But a nursing sister needs more than doctrine to do good, and Sr. Lucy also wants Sally to see how “poverty and men made a bad situation—to be born female—worse still.”
The Ninth Hour is set mainly in an Irish Catholic neighborhood of early-twentieth-century Brooklyn. It opens with the suicide of an immigrant named Jim, but the focus is on Annie, the pregnant wife he leaves behind, and the community of sisters who become a family for her and Sally, the daughter she gives birth to. That community—the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary before the Cross—finds work for Annie in the convent laundry, where Sally grows up as a favorite of the nuns.
McDermott shifts perspectives over the course of the novel to show us the events in Annie’s life through the eyes of a variety of women, including several of the nursing sisters. All of them are, in their own ways, standing before the cross, bearing witness to suffering, accepting it, confronting it, and feeling powerless to stop it. Sr. St. Saviour, the first at Annie’s side after Jim’s death, considers the despair that must have driven him and is convinced “God Himself was helpless against it.” Assessing the impossible situation in which the family has been left—suicide placing Jim outside the church’s comfort, and his wife abandoned with no support—she recalls an instruction she had been given long ago at a sickbed: “There’s nothing to be done,” an older nun had told her. “Do what you can.”
The lives of Sr. St. Saviour and all the sisters are shaped by the routines and strictures of the church, including the liturgy of the hours to which the novel’s title alludes. They accept those limits, even embrace them. But each woman has her own way of making sense of the conflict between the God of love she worships and the unfairness she sees in the world. Sr. St. Saviour prides herself on circumventing the many “rules and regulations” that “complicate the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.” Arranging for Jim to be buried in his Catholic cemetery plot, cause of death notwithstanding, is an act of mercy she feels determined to carry out. “Hold it against the good I’ve done,” she prays. (“You can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes,” mutters grim Sr. Lucy.)