"The Ninth Hour," Alice McDermott's superb and masterful new novel, begins with a suicide and culminates in murder. The book's real thrills, though, are in the feats of its storytelling. McDermott lays out all the pieces at the beginning: In the early years of the 20th century, a 32-year-old man asphyxiates himself in a railroad flat, and two nuns come to the aid of his pregnant widow.
Her baby, Sally, will in time marry a man named Patrick, and Sally and Patrick's children narrate this novel to extraordinary effect. They put their family's stories together, returning again and again to the same place, often with rhythmical cadence, knowing it better and feeling it more deeply each time, as in a prayer or psalm:
"When our father was very old — we were growing old ourselves — he told again the story he had told her that wet night, the story of his grandfather's funeral."
The Catholic Church lurks in every McDermott novel. It is the sea in which most of her Irish American characters swim. Children dressing for Mass. An aunt who was once a nun. A crucifix hanging over a couple's bed. In "The Ninth Hour" — whose title suggests not only the Midafternoon Prayer but also the time of death of Jesus and of the suicide of Sally's father — we go directly into the belly of the beast, down to the basement laundryroom of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. There the young widow, Annie, has been given a job by the nuns. Amid the "smell of wet wool, bleach, vinegar, turpentine, pine soap, and starch," Annie and Sisters Illuminata, Jeanne and Lucy raise Sally from birth to adulthood.
Full of visions and forebodings and bargains with God, these nuns puzzle and fret over their two basement mortals, arranging their futures like chess pieces, certain they are setting things to rights as best they can.
But despite their vows, these women are as flawed and carnal as any of McDermott's other brilliantly hewn characters. Sister Illuminata is physical, nearly sexual, with the laundry, "always moving, her sleeves rolled up, her veil tied back . . . bending over the washbasin or feeding wet clothes into the cracking wringer, or ironing, ironing — this was the area of her greatest expertise — throwing her whole body into it, elbows and back and hips." And before she dies, Sister St. Saviour has turned her back on God "the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband."
McDermott, who won the National Book Award in 1998 for "Charming Billy," has said that she does not write about Catholics and Catholicism merely because she is interested in them. "I have used Catholicism simply to give my characters a vocabulary that they might not otherwise have," she said. "My sense of all religions is that all we're doing is giving language to our common experience of uncertainty, of yearning."
When she discovered literature, she found that similar questions were being addressed in fiction. As in the Catholic liturgy, "the language transcends itself . . . casts a spell, calls forth spirits."
One of the most powerful and sublime spirits of "The Ninth Hour" is Red Whelan. He took Patrick's grandfather's place as a soldier in Civil War so that he could continue both his education and the family's trajectory out of poverty. When Whelan returned to their house missing an arm and a leg, he was brought upstairs and Patrick's young sister cared for him the rest of his long life. McDermott returns to Whelan again and again. His sacrifice emboldens the family much like Jesus's sacrifice emboldens the church. "Is this what Red Whelan threw away an arm and a leg for?" becomes a refrain passed down from generation to generation, as a threat, a prod, a haunting.
There are so many ways to read this beautiful novel: as a Greek tragedy with its narrative chorus and the sins of the fathers; as a Faulknerian tale out to prove once more that the "past is not even past"; as a gothic tale wrestling with faith, punishment and redemption à la Flannery O'Connor; or as an Irish novel in the tradition of Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, whose sentences, like hers, burn on the page.
But "The Ninth Hour" is also a love story, told at a languid, desultory pace and fulfilled most satisfyingly at the end. Patrick falls in love with Sally when he looks from his pram into hers, but it isn't until years later that he woos her — with a story.
Lily King is the author, most recently, of the novel "Euphoria." On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Alice McDermott will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. politics-prose.com.
By Alice McDermott
Farrar Straus Giroux. 247 pp. $26