Plot is in vogue these days, but while The Ninth Hour has a girl on a train — teenage Sally on a misbegotten, infernal trip to Chicago — McDermott largely eschews dramatic arcs. Instead, she fluidly pieces together seemingly minor events, gradually unfolding characters and relationships across decades, and gently but firmly wrestling with the issues they face. In so doing, she reminds us of the pleasures of literary fiction and its power to illuminate lives and worlds ... if McDermott shows the power of this collective of women to support each other and their community, she also reveals how the nuns struggle with — and ultimately find their own ways to reconcile themselves to — the limits of their vocation and each other ... Like James Joyce, whose Dubliners could serve as The Ninth Hour’s literary, historical, and ecclesiastical prequel, McDermott is a virtuoso of language and image, allusion and reflection, reference and symbol ... McDermott once again demonstrates her expansively attentive literary care and its quiet power.
...[a] superb and masterful new novel ... despite their vows, these women are as flawed and carnal as any of McDermott’s other brilliantly hewn characters ... 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.
God is definitely in the details in this book, named for the hour of afternoon prayer. McDermott vividly describes the ministrations involved in 'an invalid's cosseted routine' — including blood-stained bedclothes and eruptive bowels. In her hands, the unending round of the convent laundry becomes a riveting read ... By immersing readers in such homely details, The Ninth Hour, like Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn, evokes a narrowly confined, simpler, largely bygone world. But McDermott also addresses big, universal questions — about what constitutes a good life, and about how to live with the knowledge of 'that stillness, that inconsequence, that feral smell of death.' Her novel encompasses base hungers, sin, guilt, reparations, secrets, and depression — so little understood at the time. And more: The Ninth Hour is also about love, both forbidden and sanctioned, albeit with the caveat that 'Love's a tonic ... not a cure.' This enveloping novel, too, is a tonic, if not a cure.