THE NINTH HOUR
By Alice McDermott
Bloomsbury Publishing/Paperback/ 247 pages/$25.96/ Books Kinokuniya/4.5 stars
Illuminating is the word that sums up award-winning Irish-American author Alice McDermott's The Ninth Hour.
The book about a widow, her daughter and the nuns who take them in shines a light on inner dramas of faith and love. Its everyday scenes are so finely painted that one sees the light on surfaces.
The title is derived from one of the chapters' titles and refers to the afternoon hour of prayer, around which time many key incidents in the book take place.
Set in early 20th-century Brooklyn, New York, the novel begins with two deaths and a birth.
The first is that of a man preparing to gas himself after sending his pregnant wife out to buy groceries. The second is that of an elderly nun, Sister St. Saviour, who goes to the aid of the man's widow, but does not live to see the birth of her daughter.
McDermott comes up with mythical images. In the wake of the suicide, which had sparked a fire, the nun sees the shadow of a slackened fire hose and likens it to "the sloughed skin of a great snake".
The author also juxtaposes the holy and the mundane to great effect. Sister St. Saviour, in the winter of her life and envious of a young nun, turned "a cold shoulder to the God who had brought her here so that Jeanne would follow. It was the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband".
You can understand why Sister St. Saviour begrudges the young nun's many dawns to come - when the first hour of the day is so lovingly rendered by McDermott.
Sister Jeanne, walking in the gathering light, thought, "when the sun was a humming gold at the horizon, or a pale peach, or even just, as now, a grey pearl, that she felt the breath of God warm on her neck".
There is something awe-inspiring, too, about the nuns, of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, who sally forth into the tenements of Brooklyn to comfort the needy, stoic in the face of blood, vomit, poop or grotesque extremities.
Each nun has a backstory and a private struggle with sin and salvation.
Like the poor and the sick they nurse, the nuns are heir too to dirt, stain and the dilemmas of desire.
Confessing to a wish to be the favourite of a girl in her charge - Sister Illuminata understands it as "a hunger", as a man hungers to touch a woman.
For all the book's soul searching, there is room for mirth too. In the convent, Sister Illuminata, a "wizard with a hot iron and starch", "flicked her wet fingers over the cloth as if to douse a sinner".
When a nun stumbles on a couple having sex, what follows is a wryly innocent take. "Briefly, Sister thought there was something angelic about their pale struggle, the winged shoulder blades, the tangled bodies, the soft folds of their white robes, and the dusty, streaming sunlight." The spell dissolves at the sight of wide-open mouths, "dark and straining".
This book is touched with brilliance - I envy those who haven't read it and their enjoyment to come.
If you like this, read: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (Penguin Books, 2010, $18.90, Books Kinokuniya), a moving story about an Irish girl who moves to Brooklyn in search of a better life, but finds herself torn between love and duty.