Claire Lowdon

How to be good

Alice McDermott writes of love and sacrifice in 20th-century Catholic Brooklyn. But Colm Tóibín does this rather better

Suffering, wrote Auden, takes place ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. His poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ emphasises the mundanity of pain (‘even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/ Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot’) and how irrelevant it is to all but the sufferer: ‘Everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.’

Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, is peopled by women who refuse to turn away from the disasters of others. The ‘untidy spot’ is Brooklyn, sometime in the first half of the 20th century, and the unsung heroines with no time for leisure are the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor.

The novel follows various members of the city convent — bravely aging Sister St Saviour, austere Sister Lucy, warm, passionate little Sister Jean — into ‘the hidden rooms of the city’s most desolate’, where they change the dressings on the sores of old women, wash the bedridden and comfort the bereaved. One young widow, Annie, forges lifelong ties to the convent: after her husband commits suicide, the nuns arrange employment for her in their laundry. Annie takes her baby daughter Sally to work with her every day, and so the girl grows up among the Sisters, much loved yet confused as to whether her vocation is a true calling or simply the result of proximity to these unflaggingly selfless women.

Irish Catholics in America: this is well-trodden territory for McDermott, and ramshackle, impoverished Brooklyn is evoked with confidence and precision. Frequent shifts between the many characters and time periods are deftly managed. Yet the novel as a whole doesn’t do its rich subject justice. How best to do good, to be good, to shoulder some of the world’s suffering without letting it cripple you: McDermott’s answers to these major questions are compromised by clumsiness.

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