Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, is billed by her publisher as a story about three generations of an Irish immigrant family living in Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century. It is certainly set in Brooklyn and does feature mostly first- and second-generation Irish immigrant characters, but their Catholicism and their gender matter far more than their Irishness. This is a novel about women, and the relationships between women. McDermott teases out the fraught bonds between mother and daughter but also between ‘sisters’: much of the plot centres on a community of nuns, the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, dedicated to caring for New York’s needy population. In fact, the Brooklyn McDermott reveals contains very few traditional families. She is interested in how women create alternative networks, and different kinds of relationships, in order to survive.
The novel begins with Jim gassing himself in the apartment he shares with his wife, Annie, who is pregnant with their first child. Annie is offered work in the convent laundry and she and her daughter, Sally, will be sheltered by the nuns of the local community for the rest