The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (Historical Novel, 2017).
McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998 and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize multiple times. This title is my first exposure to her and I found it quite a fascinating and rewarding read. Since it’s set in the first half of the 20th Century, I’ve classified it as historical fiction but it might as easily be referred to General/Mainstream or Literary Fiction. Regardless, it’s obviously the work of a skilled and accomplished author (which is no surprise, given the above bio notes).
The book opens with the suicide of a willful young Irish immigrant. His hasty act leaves behind a pregnant young widow whom the nuns of a nearby Brooklyn tenement area convent step in to help. It soon develops that the unborn child will be the mother of the adults who tell the story as a sort of recitation of family history/lore. This technique is smoothly handled and never gets in the way of a well-told, gradually unfolding family saga.
One especially sweet little incident involves how the future father first lays eyes on his future wife (as toddlers in adjoining strollers, pushed by their moms). The family dynamics within the two families (one big and boisterous, the other limited to the young widow and her beguiling daughter) and between them are real and sensitively presented. A third key family of sorts is composed of the several convent nuns who struggle to care for the poor, the sick and the hopeless of the neighborhood.
There is a great deal of genuine emotion and the numerous memorable characters in this novel. The portrait of the time and place is surehanded and utterly convincing. And while the story is told from a humane and gentle standpoint, McDermott never shies away from the grim realities, the weaknesses and prejudices of individuals, and the failings as well as the successes of all those involved.
More than anything, this is a coming of age story revolving around Sally, the unborn child of the opening. But along the way, we rich a rich and rewarding tapestry of that lost time and place and the people who inhabited it.